Friday, April 9, 1999

Save the tiger: Commercial road to conservation

My article titled "Save the tiger: Commercial road to conservation" was published in The Economic Times on 9th April 1999.

Recently, the Tiger Forum, an international gathering of countries where tigers are still economy available in the wild, and NGOs, held its meeting in Bombay. Although Project Tiger, the most famous conservation project in India and the world, has just completed its 25th anniversary the delegates did not have anything to cheer. The participants grimly reminded each other of the fall in the number of tigers, and once again predicted that tigers may be extinct in the next 5 to 10 years.

It might seem ironic that tiger, such a prized animal, is facing extinction, with barely 3600 of them around in India today. While much less valued animals - cattle, goats, pigs, poultry, dogs, etc. - have thrived, because of their value, economic and otherwise, despite being "exploited" for thousands of years.

Economics of greed is responsible for the illegal killing and trade in tiger parts that has doomed the fate of this lord of the jungle, it is said. The fact of the matter is that the prospect of a specie surviving is greatly enhanced if it is of some value to man.

In recent decades, a number of specie have made remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction, because the commercial potential of these animals have been increasingly recognised and, therefore, harnessed. Indeed, so successful have some such efforts been, that these have become thriving economic ventures, even as the numbers of these animals have risen, and the price fallen.

About 25 years ago, FAO had initiated an international programme to try and breed crocodile for its skin. Today, crocodile farms are flourishing around the world in the US, Australia, and elsewhere. The price of crocodile skin has plummeted, so much so that many farmers are trying to promote crocodile meat products as a delicacy to entice the market. Yet, there is no conceivable threat to these ancient animals in the wild. But here in India, the government has prevented the only one successful venture in Madras to harvest its crocs. So not only have the countryside not gained from this economic opportunity, the animal and the environment has also lost out.

Some time back there was a big hue and cry over the killing of some deer and blackbuck. But according to one estimate, there are more blackbucks in Texas today, than in their native India. From very low numbers in 1970, the world deer industry has compounded at over 20 per cent annually to about 5 million today. It is meeting the demand for both venison and velvet antlers. Countries as diverse as New Zealand and Taiwan, United States and Germany, actively engaged in trade in these and other animals.

The animal that has perhaps made the most dramatic comeback is the American bison. From the barely a few in ranches and farms, that provided the foundation stock at the end of the 19th century, today their numbers are estimated to be around half a million. With the commercial herd greatly exceeding that in the wild.

Two new birds that have been attracting the attention of poultry farmers around the world are ostrich and emu. Interest in ostrich for their feathers had begun almost 150 years ago. But after going through various ups and downs, the industry has been picking steam since the mid-1980s around the world, with rising demand for feather, hide and even meat. But here the government has shot down the proposal from a few enterprising farmers even before the birds could be hatched.

As for tigers, it is one of the easiest animals to breed. Also, commercialisation is not restricted to farming alone. Experience of countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe show that wildlife can be a valuable economic resource attracting trophy hunters, photographers and eco-tourists. It is difficult to draw but one conclusion. The self-proclaimed champions of wildlife and the natural world are less interested in the survival of the specie, than in their own. After all, if the animals thrive, then these lovers of the wild will necessarily become extinct.

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