Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Save the tiger: Environmental dividend from economic development

This is the Chinese year of the tiger and people are interested in saving the tiger from extinction more than ever. Several conferences are being held, and a lot of money is being thrown at saving the tiger, but all this can't work if the Government can't mitigate the conflict between locals and wild animals. The lack of agricultural productivity forces farmers to encroach on the habitat of the tigers. This has to be resolved. China and India can save the tigers by cooperating with each other.

A shorter version of my article was published in The Wall Street Journal on August 25th.

Asia’s economic potential was first demonstrated by the four tiger economies. In recent decade, the focus has shifted to China, India and others. While economies are growing, the real tigers in the wild are living a precarious existence. It is time to reap the environmental dividend from growing prosperity, and save the tiger from extinction.

This is the Chinese Year of the Tiger! Undoubtedly, the focus is once again on ways of saving the wild tiger from extinction. This coming weekend the international Tiger Forum will meet in the north-eastern Chinese city of Hunchun. Next month a tiger summit is scheduled in St Petersburg, Russia. Last month 13 nations - Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and Russia agreed, at a meeting of the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), to double the tiger count from about 3200 at present to 7,000 by 2022. Incidentally, the tiger numbers have halved since 2002, when the claim was 7,000. Many today believe that these numbers were grossly inflated due to faulty counting procedures.

In 1900, it is believed that there were about 100,000 tigers in the forests of Asia. The number declined to about 40,000 by the 1950. Today, billions of dollars are being spent to save one of the iconic animals in the world, but the future of the tiger continues to be bleak.

According to estimates used in draft documents for the St Petersburg Tiger Summit, the economic benefit of ecological services coming from forestry and wildlife estimated in 1997 to be as high as $ 33 trillion annually, and would be much higher today. But another estimate claimed that for the people living in tiger forest in countries like Cambodia, the annual economic benefit per household to be barely $675. The numbers don’t add up!

Over the past decade, just the central government in India increased its allocation for Project Tiger, from $ 16 million (Rs 75 crore) in the 9th five year plan, to $ 32 million (Rs 150 crore) in the 10th plan, and $ 128 million (Rs 600 crore) in the current 12th Plan (2007-2012). This is equivalent of about $ 25,000 per tiger per year, for a mere 1200 animals. Compare this with the flagship rural employment programme for the poor that promises about $ 70 per family per year.

There seems to be growing gulf between the prescriptions offered by many international, largely western experts, and what domestic policy makers in China, India, and elsewhere confront on the ground.

Many of the international experts agree on the need to commit larger sums of money, monitoring of the tigers and their habitat, and almost military style enforcement to keep people and poachers out.

But these old prescriptions don’t inspire confidence any more. Indian policy makers are increasingly aware of the rising aspirations of the people, and the demand for land, for agriculture and other developmental purposes. For some others, the biggest threat to tiger comes from the growing intensity of conflict between man and wild animals. They would not like to stake everything on counting tigers.

Just in the past two months, two people lost their lives in the vicinity of the famous Ranthambore tiger park. Typical compensation for a life lost is only $2200. This is barely 10% of the annual allocation by the central government for every tiger each year, at present. Just this week, in the same park, a forest ranger who was bravely trying to shepard a tiger that had strayed near a village, armed only with a stick, was mauled.

Last year Bangladesh reported 50 deaths from tiger attacks in the Sundarbans area of the Gangetic delta. In India, the annual death toll from wild animal attacks range from 200-300 each year, in addition to injuries, loss of property and crops. Tigers and other wild animals will have a future, only if this conflict can be diffused. Otherwise the beasts will stand no chance against the ire of man.

The problem in India, and some other tiger range countries, is not that there are too many people living in close proximity to wildlife. Typically, in such areas agricultural productivity is abysmal, poverty is endemic, and non-farm economic opportunities non-existent. Without resolving this human problem, neither a proliferation of conferences nor throwing cash will help the cause of the tiger.

But this need not be the situation. If India doubles its agriculture productivity the demand for agricultural land could fall by almost 40%. If non-farm opportunities are allowed to spread, dependence on subsistence agriculture will decline rapidly. One can already see glimpses of how the natural environment can recharge once the human pressure declines.

This is most dramatically visible in China. China’s agricultural productivity is almost double of India’s. The rapid movement of millions of people from rural to urban, and changing economic structure from agriculture to industrial, explains the rise in forest cover.

Between 1990 and 2007, according to World Bank database, China’s Per capita GDP increased 8 fold, from $ 314 to $2,566, while for India it just tripled, from $374 to $ 1,046. During this same period, China’s agricultural GDP shrank from 27% to 11%, and forest cover as a share of total area rose from 17% to 22%. It is this 30% increase in forest cover in 17 years, which makes it plausible for China to attempt to rebuild wildlife habitat, and reintroduce animals. In contrast, for India, agricultural GDP declined slowly from 29% to 18%, but forest cover stayed almost the same from 22% to 23%. This indicates that in India, there is a much higher pressure on forest from people who are not able to move beyond rural livelihood, and explains the continuing conflict between man and animal.

China and India, are neighbours and competitors in many fields. But in the arena of tiger conservation, they could greatly complement each other. China barely has 45-50 tigers in the wild, mostly near the Russian border in Siberia. India has among the best wildlife experts with capacity to manage tiger habitats.

India is already trying to reintroduce tigers in to two tiger parks where all the tigers were lost in recent years. India is also toying with an ambitious effort to reintroduce the Asiatic Cheetah, which had gone extinct in 1947. But today, India’s economic transformation is not yet deep enough to remove the potential for man and animal conflict. But it will happen. Working with the Chinese on tiger conservation would help build up Indian capacity to reap their own environmental dividend.

By cooperating with each other today, China and India would not only save the tiger in the wild, but redefine the meaning of “Asian Tigers”. Wildlife and forest are not mere intangible resources, whose values are only determined by creative book-keeping. For instance, in the US, the tangible economic benefit from wildlife and nature tourism, including fishing and hunting, was estimated at $125 billion in 2005. Asia could surely give the US a run for its money, if it manages the environmental resources better.

This will require a see change in thinking. Only when people profit from forest and wildlife, will they have any interest in preserving them, and then counting every tiger will become irrelevant. Tiger economies are better equipped to secure the future of the species too!

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