Thursday, June 9, 2005

Getting This Tiger Problem by the Tail

The population of blackbucks and Tigers in many parts of the US are much more than that of India as a whole where hunting is not permitted.A large part of the illegal trade in forest products is from South East Asia. Permitting the creation of tiger parks to breed tigers will solve the problem of extinction of species. Attempts to stop illegal trade has only driven up prices. My article titled "Getting This Tiger Problem by the Tail" was published in TCS Daily on June 9th 2005.

Every time a celebrity is alleged to be involved in hunting in India, the celebrity becomes fair game. Tiger Pataudi, the legendary former captain of Indian Cricket team, is alleged to have been involved in the killing of a blackbuck in Haryana recently. While the celebrity gets all the attention, most ignore the plight of protected species at the hands of the Indian bureaucracy.

If we are really concerned about the fate of wildlife, we need to ask why it is that in the US -- where hunting species such as blackbuck is permitted -- the population of blackbacks in the US state of Texas alone is 40,000, compared to only 25,000 in the whole of India. Equally, where in the US trade of live tigers is permitted, tiger numbers are in excess of 15,000, where in India, their numbers have dwindled to around 3,500.

The problem is that Indian wildlife is seen as nationalised property and placed outside the discipline of the marketplace. While many call for more stringent action to stop the illegal trade in wildlife and for more prosecutions of poachers, this ignores the fact attempts to stem supply have merely driven up price through illegal trade.

The conservation theology imported from Western environmentalists over the past four decades focuses on stopping supply. Hunting and tree-felling are banned, and wildlife sanctuaries created.

Conservationists estimate that the worldwide illegal trade in forest products and wildlife is between USD 10-12 billion, over half of it coming from SE Asia alone. While the total economic output from hunting, fishing and tourism from wildlife in US alone is estimated to be USD 280 billion. Compare this to Indian GDP of USD 650 billion.

Instead of looking at the illegal trade as a problem, it is possible to turn it in to the solution. It is time to permit the creation of tiger parks to breed tigers. This step will unite conservation with commerce. In a competitive market economy, with respect for property rights, every demand is an opportunity for investors to improve supply, making for an abundance that will blow away any threat of extinction.

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. The tragedy in Nandankanan Zoo in 2000 (where when 11 rare tigers died in a span of four days) was partly caused by the failure to control breeding. But what zoos cant afford, commerce can ensure.

It is not too farfetched to think that a tiger farm would dovetail very well with deer or crocodile farms. This will facilitate the supply of low-cost meat to the carnivores, lowering production costs. There exists already an international market for venison meat and the skin of many herbivores.

Such farm production will ensure reliability and quality of supply of wildlife, at an affordable price, removing any incentive for poachers to seek tigers in the wild. Most importantly, such an approach would provide an economic stake to forest dwellers to conserve wildlife through commerce.

A growing tiger population in the wild would further boost the local economy, by opening up more revenue sources for consumptive and non-consumptive uses. Tourists and professional photographers would happily pay for the non-consumptive uses. Trophy hunters would be willing to pay many times more for the experience of tracking and hunting the tigers in the wild. For instance, in South Africa, trophy hunters pay USD 30,000 to 40,000 for the experience of shooting a wild elephant or a rhino.

The tiger, 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 a demand for virtually every part of the tiger. The total value of tiger parts from its nose to its tail could easily come to USD 40,000.

In addition, there is a huge demand for ornamental and decorative usage of tiger skin and claw products. Such a demand for tiger products mean that a tiger is really a king who can easily earn his keep, and thrive.

Under the present system of prohibition, forest dwellers have no interest in protecting tigers, poachers and traffickers have a field day. Unscrupulous traders profit from selling spurious tiger products. The high profitability attracts the criminal mafia.

The Indian experience till a few years ago provides the best illustration of the tragic consequences of dysfunctional economic regulations. The babus wielded the power, smugglers oiled the wheels, blackmarketeers made a killing and the law enforcers took their cut. The poor consumer bore the brunt, as the economy ground to a halt.

However, market economics greatly favour the tiger. The question is: are the environmentalists keen to save to tiger or more interested in expanding regulation and control?