Can the Market Save the Tigers?

Published on 5th July 2005

The world’s efforts to save the tiger are on the verge of failure. Thirty years after the launch of “Project Tiger,” the most high-profile conservation program in the world, barely 5,000 to 6,000 of the animals are left in the wild.


About half the wild tigers are in India, but in one designated tiger reserve, Sariska, not a single animal has been sighted in the past year. Meanwhile, in February the government confiscated a record haul of leopard and tiger skin from smugglers. New Delhi recently acknowledged that wildlife and endangered species are being trafficked through Nepal and Tibet to China, and through Burma to lucrative markets elsewhere in East Asia. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the situation as a national crisis and paid a visit to the famous Ranthambore tiger reservein Rajasthan province.


The tragedy is that this outcome is actually the result of misguided conservation efforts. A paradox is at work here: The tiger, the king of the jungle and an immensely valuable animal, has been turned into an unwanted pauper by a prohibition on the sale of tiger products. The rural population, deriving no benefit from proximity to the big cats, thinks of the tiger as mere vermin. After all, at least 300 rural people in India alone lose their lives annually due to attacks by wild animals like the tiger, leopard and the elephant. Moreover, these wild carnivores carry away countless domestic animals into the forest. Illegal hunters and poachers take advantage of this conflict between local populations and conservation in order to operate freely.


According to a recent official report, 112 tigers were killed by poachers between 1999 and 2003. Environmentalists claim that the figure is many times that. During this period over 411 cases were filed regarding the death of tigers and seizure of tiger-related products. Yet not one of these cases secured a conviction.


As a result, poachers are confident that if they can supply tiger products to the international smugglers, they will make a killing. A dead tiger can fetch as much as $40,000 for its various body parts in the retail markets of East Asia. But the poacher in India may secure the cooperation of villagers in tracking down a tiger by offering as little as $25 to $50.


The tiger has lost because of the conflict between conservation and the needs of the rural population. But there need be no such conflict. Commercial utilization of forest resources, including the tiger, could greatly benefit local people, and provide them an incentive to protect and preserve their resource base. But for this to happen, it is necessary to break the environmental theology that argues commerce and conservation cannot go together. Indeed, it is successful commerce alone that can make conservation viable. If we truly value the tiger, then this crisis provides an opportunity to look for new solutions. Given the chance, the tiger can earn its way out of trouble. The tiger breeds very easily, even in captivity. Zoos in India are constantly advised not to breed tigers because, being large carnivorous animals, they are expensive to maintain. In 2000, in a span of a week, 13 tigers died in the Nandankanan Zoo in the eastern state of Orissa, because uncontrolled breeding led to overpopulation. The meat supplied to feed these animals was said to be contaminated. But what zoos can’t afford, commerce can provide.


It is time to permit the creation of farms to breed tigers and sell the products made from them. The tiger, which is at the top of the food chain in its ecosystem, would also be at the top of the economic ladder because of its market value. There is demand for virtually every part of the tiger. Farming and ranching can go a long way towards ensuring a plentiful supply of wildlife products, thus removing the incentive from poachers who kill tigers and other animals in the wild. Such steps will help in taking the pressure off the wild tigers. Growing populations and prosperity in Asia, along with increasing popularity of traditional eastern medicines, mean that there is a huge latent demand for tiger parts, ensuring the economic viability of tiger farms. Rather than looking at this as a problem, consider how this demand might be exploited to provide funds for tiger breeding.


From the tip of the nose to end of the tail, almost every part of the tiger seems to find a place in the traditional Chinese and Eastern medicines: tiger claws as a cure for insomnia; tiger teeth to treat fever; tiger brains, mixed with oil and rubbed over the body to cure laziness and acne; tiger eyeballs to treat epilepsy and malaria; tiger whiskers to give the user courage and prevent toothache; tiger tail to treat skin diseases; and even tiger penis to boost virility.


In addition to these supposed medicinal uses, there is also a huge demand for tiger skin and claw products for ornamental purposes. Tiger farming might even dovetail very well with deer or crocodile farms, which could supply low-cost meat to the carnivores, lowering the production costs. By allowing such integrated farming of high value products from extremely remote rural settings, the economy of many of these communities could be transformed and the pressure on the natural environment of the forests would greatly diminish.


Creating tiger farms would dramatically change the future for the tiger, as well as for the people who actually live near tiger habitats. The pressure on wild tigers would go down, attracting ever more tourists to visit sanctuaries to see this majestic animal in its natural setting. The new supply would lower the price of dead tigers and reduce the incentive for smugglers to kill wild tigers.


Meanwhile, scientists and wildlife managers would have an opportunity to improve their breeding, management and rehabilitation programs to reintroduce tigers from the farms to the wild. Since tiger farms would have to be located close to natural habitats, rural populations would find a very lucrative economic opportunity. Integrating local populations with the economics of environment will change the incentive structure. Villagers, who are often enticed by smugglers to kill a wild tiger for a few dollars, would then defend their new environmental assets, because a live tiger would be more profitable to them than a dead one. Formal trade and marketing channels would develop for both consumptive and non consumptive uses of tiger. Consequently, investment will be forthcoming to develop better husbandry practices. Direct investment in wildlife and forest resources would also spin off an enormous secondary chain of economic activities in tourism, transportation, hotels, marketing, etc.


There is good precedent for predicting such a huge recovery. By the turn of the last century, America’s bison population had dwindled to a few hundred. But in the past 50 years ranching has restored the herds to over half a million today. The turnaround is so dramatic that today the ranchers must actively market bison products and meat so that the animals can earn their keep. On the other hand, some years ago there was a serious attempt to help the sea turtle ride the commercial wave in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, environmentalists killed the venture in its infancy. And so the turtles remain under constant threat of extinction, while the environmentalists bask in the glory. It would be a tragedy if the tiger shared this fate.


The government has proposed a new law that seeks to grant land rights to tribal families in rural and forested areas. The aim is to give the communities that live near and within forest areas a limited stake in the resources around them. While this bill has many problems, the fact that it seeks to recognize rights of the forest dwellers is an indication of the new thinking in the present administration. But the bill does not go far enough in granting clear property rights to each of the nuclear tribal families. Ironically, it seeks to tie the family to subsistence living by grossly restricting land and resource use, even in the midst of such rich natural and renewable resources. And many environmentalists and self-proclaimed animal lovers are against this law altogether. They describe this as the beginning of privatization of environmental resources. Nothing would help the tiger, and the forest resources more, than if forest dwellers were given a stake in the resources in their vicinity and an opportunity to invest in these resources in order to make a profit. By creating a legal framework for the local people to harness their renewable environmental resources in an economic manner, it would be possible to resolve the conflict between the people and these resources. They will have the incentive to optimize the use of these renewable resources. It is mostly forgotten that forest and wildlife, including tigers, are renewable resources!


A growing tiger population in the wild would further boost the rural economy, by opening up more revenue sources for consumptive and non consumptive uses. Tourists and professional photographers would happily provide the demand for the non consumptive uses. Meanwhile, trophy hunters would be willing to pay many times more for the experience of tracking and hunting the tigers released into the wild. For instance, in South Africa trophy hunters pay $30,000 to $40,000 for the experience of shooting a wild elephant or a rhino. In short, market economics greatly favour the tiger.


The question is whether the environmentalists are really keen to save the tiger, or are more interested in expanding their own empire. It is possible to return the king of the forests to his rightful place and secure his kingdom. Peace and prosperity will reign as the forest tribes and the tigers establish a mutually beneficial relationship. In a competitive market economy with respect for property rights, every demand is an opportunity for investors to improve supply. Millions of dollars have been spent to protect the tiger from poachers. The result is there for all to see. The environmental bureaucracy has expanded, budgets have grown, conservationists have proliferated, conferences to discuss strategies to protect the endangered species have become commonplace, yet the tiger remains close to extinction. Prohibition has manifestly failed and it’s time to recognize that only a market-based approach can save the tiger.


This article has been read 11,761 times