India's Big Cats

Apr 24, 2009
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The tiger is facing extinction. If the present trend continues, there will be no tiger left in the wild.

It is generally said that the demand for tiger parts is the cause of the tiger’s plight. Consequently, trade in tiger parts has been banned, and hunting prohibited. But prohibition only increases profitability. When trade is outlawed, only outlaws undertake trade. Not surprisingly, over a quarter century of prohibition has failed to secure the future of the tiger.

Clearly, it is time to ask whether commerce and conservation are inherently incompatible, or whether commerce can be harnessed to promote conservation.

Why does Texas have over 40,000 blackbuck when it allows hunting, whereas there are only 25,000 blackbuck in India where hunting is prohibited? And why are there 15,000 tigers in US, where trade in live tigers is permitted, with websites advertising for tiger cubs as pets while in India, there are only 3,500?

The problem is that Indian wildlife is seen as nationalised property and placed outside the discipline of the marketplace. Today these animals are in the uncaring hands of bureaucrats who are more interested in building their own empires and environmentalists who profit even as the crisis deepens. Everyone but the cat has become a fat cat!

The whole conservation theology imported from Western environmentalists over the past four decades has been to focus on stopping supply. So hunting has been banned, tree-felling in forests has been banned, and wildlife sanctuaries have been created where even entry of lesser mortals have been banned.

Such an approach has contributed to two developments. One, the trade in endangered species has become extremely profitable. Secondly, the local population who live close to wildlife has become completely alienated. As any basic economics textbook will make clear, restricting supply only raises the price.

Conservationists estimate that the worldwide illegal trade in forest products and wildlife is between $10-12 billion, over half of it coming from South-east Asia alone.

It is time to permit the creation of tiger parks to breed tigers, to 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. But tiger farms do not have such considerations. Such farms would dovetail very well with deer or crocodile farms which would supply low-cost meat to the carnivores, lowering production costs. There is an international market for venison and the skins of many types of herbivores.

Such farm production will ensure reliability and quality of supply of wildlife, at an affordable price, completely taking the incentive away from poachers who seek tigers in the wild. It will also 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. Tourists and professional photographers would happily pay to have their pictures taken with the striped stars. 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 Rs 15 to 20 lakhs ($33,750 to $45,000) for the experience of shooting a wild elephant or a rhino.

The tiger has great 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 Rs 20 lakhs. There is also a huge demand for its skin and claws for ornamental uses. 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. If the Indian Prime Minister would base his decision on economics alone, it is possible to return the king to his rightful place and to secure his kingdom.


Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent think tank in New Delhi.