Turning Tigers to Wealth

Published on 18th July 2006

Every crisis is an opportunity. While it may provide an opportunity to explore new options in an attempt to end the crisis, it may also blind people to alternatives, making them cling to failed policy options that have contributed to the problem. China and India reflect these contrasting approaches in their efforts to save the tiger.

Since the 1970s, India has enacted tough laws and mobilized huge resources to prevent hunting and trading of tigers, but the present debate over a tiger census is an indication that the policy of prohibition has not secured the future of tigers. India has the largest number of tigers in the wild-anywhere between two and four thousand. China probably has only 20 or 30 left in the wild. But it is in China that tiger parts, particularly bones, are in demand for treating severely arthritic patients as per traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). China too adopted a similar policy of prohibition in 1993, but to no avail.

In fact, the prohibition may have increased the suffering of Chinese patients who rely on TCM for relief. Conscious of this dual crisis, China is now experimenting with a range of radical policy options. The contrast with India-where there are news reports of enlisting even the army to protect the tiger-could not have been more glaring. In China, over the past decade, special tiger-breeding bases set up both under the public and private domain have virtually perfected the art. There are over 4,000 tigers in captivity in China today, and an effort is on to build a genetic profile, so that the number of pure sub-species could be documented and increased. There are around 20 tiger-breeding facilities in China. While most are small, some are quite large. A 40-hectare tiger and bear park in the town of Guilin houses around 1,000 tigers in enclosures and cages.

This is a major tourist destination, but the revenue from tourism is nowhere near adequate to meet the cost ($4,000 per year) of raising a tiger. The cost of the feed constitutes about 75 per cent of the total cost. To meet the expenses, this park has been completely mortgaged to banks. Some years ago, it had to destroy a stock of tonnes of bones from dead tigers, because the cost of refrigeration was too high.

Chinese entrepreneurs and wildlife managers look optimistic. An adult tiger leaves behind about 12 to 15 kg of dry bones, which could sell for $ 500-1,000 per kg in the market for TCM. Apart from that, the skin, claws and some other organs fetch another $10,000. In addition, there is a constant demand for pure-bred sub-species of live tiger cubs and young adults from zoos and other establishments around the world. Also, the cost of feed can be reduced substantially by substituting commercial meat with low-cost wildlife.

Tiger farms are eminently viable financially. Clearly, commerce is no enemy of conservation. China has, in fact, created a legal domestic market, and developed a computerised documentation system to track wildlife products like ivory and musk, from their stocks to manufacturing, retailing and customer documentation. China is also experimenting with re-wilding techniques at a tiger valley in South Africa through public-private partnership. It hopes to master this art and train captive-bred tigers to survive in the wild. There is a willingness in China to experiment even in internationally sensitive issues. From a limited domestic trade in tiger bones they hope to raise enough revenue to sustain their new tiger conservation strategies. The legal trade is expected to reduce the pressure on wild tigers, while helping Chinese patients.

If this policy works, China may have, in a decade, over one lakh tigers in captivity and the natural death rate may be adequate to meet the demand for tiger bones. For years, India has not discussed tiger conservation with China. The question is whether India will behave like a tiger, and bravely join China in search of new conservation strategies, or meekly sentence the tiger to inevitable extinction.

This article also appeared in India Today

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