Information, Wildlife Valuation, Conservation: Experiments and Policy

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Wild biodiversity decline is of global policy concern (McNeely and Scherr, 2003, Ch. 2), and economists have given increasing attention to it. Nevertheless, economists remain uncertain of the influence of the public's knowledge of individual wildlife species on the level of public demand for funding conservation programs for these species. This article uses an experimental Australian case study to identify ways in which information about species influences the willingness of the public to support their conservation.

Specifically, this study examines changes in the stated demand of a sample of the Australian public for funding conservation programs for 24 Australian vertebrate species. These wildlife species are drawn from higher order taxa (mammals, birds, and reptiles), and most occur only in tropical Australia. Their conservation status varies. Half of the focal species are listed in the IUCN Red List (IUCN, 2004a) as threatened (see Table 1). The chosen set of species is of global interest. For example, Australia has the eighth highest number of threatened vertebrate species (terrestrial and marine) globally, and the US the fourth highest (IUCN, 2004b). But if the amniotes are considered, Australia has the highest number of these species under threat among all developed nations (IUCN, 2004b). Many of Australia's threatened species occur only in its tropics, which are inhabited by relatively few Australians, and consequently most people may be relatively unfamiliar with species occurring there. The likelihood of this unfamiliarity was a factor influencing the choice of species for this study.

Economists are aware that the extent of respondents' knowledge about environmental goods significantly influences their stated demand for these and, by implication, actual demand. Therefore, ensuring that respondents have "adequate" information about the goods they are to value is considered to be an important aspect of contingent valuation (Carson, 2000) and of other methods involving stated preference. For example, Mitchell and Carson (1989, p. 247) claim that inadequacies in information are "among the most important and most problematic sources of error in contingent valuation." Bergstrom et al. (1990) argued that providing information about the quality of the environmental good can increase the reliability of stated willingness to pay (WTP) estimates. Blomquist and Whitehead (1998) found that information provided about the quality of an environmental resource significantly influences WTP, especially among incompletely informed respondents. Samples et al. (1986) showed that WTP for conservation of different wildlife species varies with their types of characteristics revealed to respondents, particularly their physical appearances and endangered status. Tkac (1998) found that the reported endangerment status of species is a relatively more important influence on WTP than suggested by Samples et al. (1986), and that individuals who are already relatively well informed are less subject to increases in WTP as a result of information provision than the less informed.

Elicitation of preferences is more complicated than originally thought by some economists (e.g., Randall, 1986) who hypothesize that individuals have pre-existing true preferences that merely have to be elicited by the researcher. Complexity occurs because, as Spash (2002) points out and as the theories of Ajzen et al. (1996) and Ajzen and Driver (1992) suggest, communication of information provides knowledge and is preference-forming. Consequently, if different sets of correct information about a commodity (in this case, wildlife species) are communicated, different stated preferences can emerge. Furthermore, preferences for commodities about which individuals are more ignorant are more sensitive to information provision. This is consistent with the results of Tkac (1998) and Bateman and Mawby (2004, p. 49). The authors are able to test this hypothesis for the wildlife species considered in this article, and they consider the type of information that is particularly influential in altering respondents' stated demands for conservation programs. …