Friday, June 1, 2007

China's market plan to save the tiger

Communist China is seeking a reassessment of conservation policies, and wants to explore the possibility of bringing the tiger under the discipline of market forces, in the hope of saving the magnificent beast. But critics from the “free world” are blaming the tiger crisis on market failure, and seeking a greatly enhanced role for the state. China is looking at the profit motive to save the tiger, while its critics are looking to brute force to implement the prohibition on smuggling.

In this article titled, "China’s Market Plan to Save the Tiger", published in Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), in June 2007, I explore the prospect for the tiger in the wild.

The Nepalese minister inaugurating the international tiger symposium in Kathmandu in mid-April acknowledged that traditional approaches in the conservation field are not bearing fruit, and called for new thinking. His call came not a day too soon. The number of wild tigers remaining in the world is at an all-time low, estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000, probably half of what was believed a few years ago. Yet while there was a range of policy options before the who’s who of the tiger world, the week-long deliberations brought only more confusion and contradictions.

Is the tiger facing a crisis at all? Could it be that in the past, wild tiger numbers in India had been grossly inflated because of a faulty counting procedure? Is it true that on average one tiger a day is poached in India, and if so where are these dead tigers headed? If reports by some environmental organizations are to be believed, then there are very few instances of tiger bones or tiger medicine found in China today. Why then is the focus on poaching, when others claim that the biggest threat to the tiger comes from the continuing loss of habitats?

Should India be commended for maintaining a smaller number of tigers in the wild, even if it does not answer to what happened to the vast sums of money that have been spent over the past decades? Should China be condemned for continued demand for tiger parts, when there is little evidence of tiger products in China’s markets?

For the first time, a large delegation from the People’s Republic of China participated in the deliberations. China is now considering legalizing the trade in tiger products from farmed animals within its borders. This further ignited the debate over the relationship between economic development and environmental quality. Are conservation objectives and commercial goals compatible? Is the consumer demand for tiger parts necessarily a prescription for the possible extinction of tigers in the wild?

For the past three decades of tiger conservation, commerce and conservation have been pitted against each other. The principal focus of the present conservation strategy has been to prohibit all forms of culling of tigers, trading in tiger parts and consumption. Policing has been made the cornerstone of tiger-conservation polices. The goal has been to place tigers and the forests so high on a pedestal that market prices won’t be able to touch these precious resources! So we have the paradox of highly valued resources placed outside the discipline of market forces, and some of the poorest people on earth living in close proximity to such valuable resources without any incentive to conserve and manage the resources in a sustainable manner.

The reality is that when there is a demand from consumers in the market, such a policy prescription is an open invitation to criminals and smugglers to profit from poaching of tigers. So poaching continues to pose a threat to wild tigers. This approach ignores the fact that tigers are a renewable resource. They breed very easily in captivity. In fact over the last decade China has almost perfected the art of managing and breeding large number of tigers in captivity, currently estimated at 5,000 animals. Bringing some of these tigers to meet the demand in the market for tiger parts by legalizing trade could make poaching economically less attractive.

There are plenty of examples of species thriving under the discipline of commerce. From bison to crocodiles, many species have largely escaped the threat of extinction. Just as the tiger conservation policy was seeking to prohibit commerce in the 1970s, crocodile farming was taking roots.

Today, while India continues with its policy of keeping the crocodile outside the scope of commerce, elsewhere crocodiles have become a very successful commercial animal.
An estimated two million crocodiles are harvested each year from facilities as far apart as Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Contrary to the fears of conservationists, this has not led to crocodiles being poached in India or elsewhere. The reason is simple. If an international brand name wants a large volume of crocodile skins at a competitive price, it has no reason to seek a poacher when it can procure it from a legal farmer.

Take the case of hunting. In India, the government has prosecuted film actor Salman Khan and others for their alleged crime of hunting a few blackbucks. Recently, former Indian cricket Captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was similarly ensnared in a hunting controversy. The blackbuck is a very attractive animal, indigenous to South Asia. Yet, today there are probably more blackbucks in Texas alone than in its home range in India. And it is legal to hunt these animals in the U.S.
In the U.S., blackbucks are looked upon as an investment, and therefore managed in a very sustainable manner by many range owners. It is estimated that in the U.S., the annual economic activity from a whole range of environmental activities, including nature treks, bird watching, fishing and hunting, generates revenue of over $100 billion.

It is possible to conceive a similar outcome in India or China, with their enormous diversity in wildlife resources. Big cats like tigers, lions or leopards could help transform the lives and living standards of some of the poorest sections of our populations.

Wildlife conservation, rather than being a drain on the national exchequer, could become
a contributor to the economy. There is an environmental dividend from economic development. Most rich Western countries have been able to restore and improve their environmental quality with economic development. Economic development opens opportunity for people to move away from land and reduce their dependency on environmental resources for their survival. China seems poised to reap this environmental dividend soon. Much more than poaching, pressure on natural habitats by poverty-stricken human settlements pose by far the biggest threat to biodiversity and tigers.

China’s economic growth in recent decades is credited with moving a couple of hundred million rural residents away from the countryside. This has helped lower the pressure on natural resources such as forests and wetlands.

China has identified a couple of original habitats of the south China tiger for a bold experiment in rewilding and reintroduction of one of the most endangered subspecies of tiger today. A few of these tigers have been sent to South Africa for a rewilding program to revive their hunting
and survival skills. The progenies of these tigers could be reintroduced in the designated
areas in China. Efforts are underway to help restore these habitats. And one of the prime objectives is to help integrate many of the remaining local villagers into the ecotourism model, so that these people directly enjoy the economic benefits of the environmental restoration.

Clearly, the declining human pressure on forest and wildlife, coupled with breeding facilities meeting the demand for tiger parts in Chinese market, together have the potential to dramatically improve the prospects of tigers in the wild, securing the future of these majestic animals. If the 21st century is the Asian century, then tiger conservation provides an opportunity to bring a new dimension of cooperation between Beijing and Delhi.

India has had a lot of trouble handling large cats in captivity. Last year, about half a dozen big cats died in Delhi Zoo. In 2000, about a dozen mysteriously died at Nandankanan Zoo over the span of a week. In China, breeders have managed to handle hundreds of animals in close proximity without a major calamity. Meanwhile, India has a lot of expertise in terms of people who have years of experience in managing tiger habitats. These people provide a ready pool of talent that could help China restore and rebuild some of its habitats.

The choice before the delegates in Kathmandu could not have been starker. Should their governments persist in spending millions of dollars in an attempt to keep the tiger outside the purview of the market, and look at commerce as the principal threat to conservation? Or should they seek to harness the power of commerce for the cause of conservation? The future of tigers in the wild may depend on the decisions taken in the coming months. Hopefully, the turmoil among the conservationists gathered in Nepal is only the beginning. For the sake of the tiger, one hopes it will expose the myth of conservation being necessarily at odds with commerce, and bring to light the reality of harnessing the power of commerce for the cause of conservation.

In June, delegates from around the world will discuss the relationship between commerce and conservation at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in The Hague, Netherlands. China is not currently seeking to reopen international trade in tiger parts. But if China decides to reopen domestic trade in tiger parts, just as the U.S. allows trade in live tigers, it will be perfectly in line with its international commitments.

This debate over the tiger is a reflection of the ironic reversal of traditional ideological positions. Communist China is seeking a reassessment of conservation policies, and wants to explore the possibility of bringing the tiger under the discipline of market forces, in the hope of saving the magnificent beast. But critics from the “free world” are blaming the tiger crisis on market failure, and seeking a greatly enhanced role for the state. China is looking at the profit motive to save the tiger, while its critics are looking to brute force to implement the prohibition on smuggling.

Welcome to the brave new world of tiger conservation!

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