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Losing the tiger?s trail

Criminalising the killing of tigers and prohibiting trade in tiger parts will not help the cause of conservation. The correct policy would harness the power of commerce to save the tiger, writes Barun Mitra.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2006 05:55 IST

If drafting a law on a piece of paper could solve all problems, one would cheerfully concede that paper tigers have teeth. The reality, we know, is different. The proposed amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment 2005, being discussed in Parliament at present, looks set to be just one more piece of legislation that won’t extend beyond the paper it is printed on.

The tiger is facing extinction in the wild because of the perverse incentive structure that exists. This Bill ignores this incentive structure and instead seeks to strengthen the very policies that have failed to protect the tiger in the first place.

Piloting the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, Minister for Environment and Forest A. Raja acknowledged that, even after three decades of conservation efforts, the country’s tiger population remains ‘critical’; that there is need to address the issue from planning to administration to dealing with violation.

The government seems to look at tiger conservation as primarily a law and order problem. Nothing can be further from the truth. Let’s identify the three major negative incentives that exist and which the Bill aims to strengthen. First, those entrusted with protection of the tiger have no incentive to do so. Instead, the bigger their failure, the greater their reward — Project Tiger has failed to protect the tiger, but is being rewarded with more staff, authority and money under the Bill.

Second, if the new authority succeeds in improving protection for tigers, the demand and price of tiger parts in the underground market will increase. This will give poachers greater incentive to upgrade operations.

Third, some of the poorest people live within and around tiger habitats. They have little incentive to protect wildlife and forest products. By looking at tiger conservation as a law and order problem, the Bill will only aggravate the sense of alienation among them and instead of creating a conducive environment, will provide poachers with willing collaborators from among the local population.

If we are really interested in saving the tiger, we need to find ways of harnessing the power of commerce for the cause of conservation, instead of falling back on prohibition.

It is ironic that a highly prized animal like the tiger, which can potentially fetch anything between $ 50,000 and $ 200,000 in the illegal market, is facing extinction, while some of the most exploited animals such as cattle, poultry and sheep are thriving. The reason is that these species’ commercial potential is recognised — people have property rights over them, trade is legal and investment is secure. People invest capital, technology and management expertise to optimise their utilisation in a sustainable manner. Consequently, the animals become a valuable asset, growth is abundant, the price falls and the pressure on their kin in the wild declines.

Take crocodile farming, for instance. About 2 million animals are traded each year, meeting the demand from the leather and fashion industry. Prices have fallen, so many farmers are seeking to market crocodile meat as a healthy white meat to improve their bottomline in the face of stiff competition. In no country where crocodile farming is legal — from Australia to the US — is there any threat to the wild crocodile. More importantly, the vibrant trade has virtually eliminated poachers from the scene.

Unfortunately, India refuses to follow this path. For over two decades, the government has refused to allow crocodile farming in India; the reptile is facing the prospect of extinction while making no contribution to the economy.

It is ironic that the man who, as Finance Minister in 1991, had boldly sought to liberalise the economy, is now, as Prime Minister, proposing the opposite in case of the tiger and wildlife. There is a lesson for our policy-makers from India’s pre-liberalisation days — when trade was restricted, smugglers thrived, law enforcers and the bureaucracy were bribed, and consumers suffered higher prices and low quality. Clearly, when trade is outlawed, only outlaws trade.

Coming back to the tiger, China has perfected captive breeding and is exploring the possibility of reopening trade in tiger parts. Riding on commerce, it hopes to increase the tiger population in captivity to 100,000 in a decade. It is experimenting with ‘re-wilding’ tigers bred in captivity and exploring ways of re-stocking the natural habitats with animals of prey.

There is a growing recognition in China that prohibition, as urged by conservationists in 1993, has not worked. Thus, while communist China is willing to explore the power of the market for the conservation of the tiger, India is proposing to strengthen prohibition.

It is time to ask: do we really want to save the tiger? Or are we only interested in building the environmental bureaucracy at the expense of the cat? After all, if the tiger thrives, many activists and bureaucrats may become extinct.

The writer is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent think tank based in Delhi