The international gathering of tiger conservationists in Kathmandu this week will be in a sombre mood. The number of wild tigers is at an all time low — between 2,000 and 3,000 — probably half of what was believed a few years ago.
The decibel of the debate over the relationship between economic development and environmental quality is at an all-time high. Are conservation and commerce compatible? Is the consumer demand for tiger parts necessarily a prescription for the possible extinction of tigers in the wild? The meet is an opportunity to undertake a serious re-evaluation of existing tiger conservation strategies. Interestingly, for the first time, an official Chinese delegation is participating in the deliberations, triggering further speculation.
Through the last 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 consumption, hunting of tigers, and trading in tiger parts. Policing has been made the cornerstone of tiger conservation polices.
So we have the paradox of high-value wildlife resources placed outside the discipline of market forces, and some of the poorest people in the world living in close proximity to such resources, without any incentive to conserve and manage sustainably.
But 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 the poaching of tigers. Thus, poaching has continued to pose a major threat to wild tigers. In addition, about 75 per cent of the alleged tiger parts seized in China and sent to wildlife forensic labs for testing, are being found to be fake. Clearly, when trade is outlawed, only outlaws trade.
But tigers are a renewable resource. They breed very easily in captivity. In fact, China has, over the past decade or so, almost perfected the art of managing and breeding a large number of tigers in captivity, currently estimated at 5,000 animals. Bringing some of these tigers into the market to meet the demand for tiger parts, by legalising its trade, could make poaching economically unattractive.
There are many examples of species thriving under the discipline of commerce. Even as the tiger conservation policy prohibited commerce in the 1970s, crocodile farming was taking root. Today, India continues with its policy of keeping crocodiles outside the scope of commerce. But crocodiles have become very successful commercial animals elsewhere. Two million crocodiles are estimated to be harvested each year in Australia, South Africa and the US. Yet, there is hardly any evidence of crocodiles being poached in India or elsewhere because of market demand.
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 these from a legal farmer.
Further, it is estimated that in the US the annual economic activity from a range of environmental activities, including nature treks and bird watching to fishing and hunting, generates revenue of over $ 100 billion. Big cats like tigers, lions and leopards can help transform the lives of some of the poorest sections of the population in poor countries.
Most rich Western countries have been able to restore and improve their environmental quality with economic development. China seems poised to reap the environmental dividend soon.
Pressure on the natural habitats of impoverished people poses, by far, the biggest threat to biodiversity and tigers — much more than poaching does. China’s economic growth in recent decades is credited to have moved a couple of hundred million rural folks away from the country side. In some of the remote rural regions, villages are depopulating at a very fast rate. This has helped lower the pressure on natural resources of land, forest and water bodies.
China has identified a couple of such areas, original habitat of the south China tiger (SCT), for a bold experiment in ‘re-wilding’ and re-introduction of one of the most endangered sub-species of tigers.
Clearly, the declining human pressure on forest and wildlife — a result of increasing alternative economic opportunities — coupled with breeding facilities to meet the demand for tiger parts will dramatically alter the future of tigers in the wild, securing the future of these majestic animals. Tiger conservation provides an opportunity to bring a new dimension of cooperation between China and India.
India has had a lot of trouble handling large cats in captivity. Last year, about half a dozen big cats died in the Delhi zoo. In 2000, a dozen mysteriously died at Nandankanan zoo over a span of a week. In China, breeders have managed to handle hundreds of animals in close proximity without any major calamity.
India has a lot of expertise in terms of people who have the experience of managing forests and tiger habitats. These people provided a ready pool of talent to help China restore and rebuild some of its tiger habitats. Finally, wildlife conservation, rather than becoming a drain on the national exchequer, could become a major contributor to the national economy.
The choice before the delegates in Kathmandu this week could not have been starker. Should they harness the power of commerce for the cause of conservation? Or should they continue to condemn commerce? The tiger is at a crossroads, but its future depends on the choice we make between these two scripts.
Barun Mitra is director of Liberty Institute