Throwback Thursday: From the Vault
Tomorrow is International Tiger Day, but it’s been a rough year for the big cat. Only an estimated 3,000 of them remain in the wild, and Cambodia declared the tiger extinct within its borders earlier in 2016.
To make matters even worse, some groups who claim to be protecting the endangered tiger have been revealed as frauds. Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple, a monastery that allowed tourists to pay a fee and interact with tigers, was recently charged with illegal possession of endangered wildlife and wildlife trafficking. When the wildlife department officers went to seize the monastery’s 137 tigers, they discovered 60 frozen and bottled tiger cub carcasses, pelts, and other endangered-species parts. It is thought that the monks were mistreating the tigers and illegally selling tiger products for huge profits on the black market.
So this International Tiger Day, how do we protect this iconic animal? Unfortunately, trade bans, efforts against poaching, and days of awareness have clearly not been enough to save the wild tiger. Though these approaches could work if everyone agreed that every last tiger is worth protecting, the harsh reality is that there are people who will pay big money for tiger parts, poachers who have no qualms about killing tigers, and plenty of people who live with tigers and see them as threats. To address these realities, Barun Mitra suggested another approach to tiger conservation in his 2006 Perc Reports article “Saving the Tiger”: allowing tigers and their parts to be legally raised and traded.
If we truly value the tiger, we need to explore the tiger’s commercial potential. By harnessing the real economic value of tigers and other forest produce, we may make the tiger earn its keep, and avoid the specter of extinction of this magnificent species in the wild.
The tiger, which is at the top of the food chain in its ecosystem, would be at the top of the economic ladder because of its market value. Among the results we can expect from breeding tigers to reduce poaching in the wild:
- The scale of farmed tigers will reduce the incentive for smugglers to kill wild tigers
- Scientists and wildlife managers will improve their breeding, management, and rehabilitation methods for tiger reintroduction; forest dwellers, who have detailed knowledge of their natural surroundings, will facilitate wildlife management.
- Rural populations will change their incentives. Villagers who are often lured by smugglers into killing a wild tiger for a few dollars will now defend their new environmental assets, because a live tiger will be more profitable to them than a dead one.
- As trade and marketing channels develop for both consumptive and non-consumptive use of tigers, investment in better technologies and management practices will take place. National and international brands will appear. Tourism will increase.
A successful wildlife economy will help build awareness of the value of environmental resources. The price of the tiger in the black market will collapse, and legal trade will thrive. Investment will improve the productivity of wildlife farms, and assured supply and low prices will take the pressure off the wild tigers, allowing their numbers to revive.
A legal framework for tiger breeding would help resolve the conflict between the people and animals that has contributed to the tiger’s drastic decline. Once people can profit from these resources, they will have the incentive to optimize the use of the resources. It is mostly forgotten that forest and wildlife, including tigers, are renewable.
Under such a framework, rather than being in conflict, humans and animals would both prosper. Commerce could be the most powerful ally of conservation.
Legal, monitored ranching and trade of endangered species has been shown to preserve their populations. Take the Nile crocodile, for instance, which was previously endangered and whose trade was banned under CITES. Kenya, however, made an arrangement to allow for the private ranching of these crocodiles under a strict permitting and management system. Part of the program involved ranchers training community members on methods of wild crocodile egg collection and handling, and it then paid them for collecting the eggs. In 2006, CITES noted the success of crocodile ranching on local populations, saying, “overall, community crocodile egg collection programme has helped turn the human crocodile conflict problem into a sustainable socio-ecological and economic opportunity, which supports conservation of the resource.”
A similar story can be told with respect to southern white rhinos in South Africa. South Africa used to allow rhino trophy hunting, but rhinos were un-owned property. Landowners had incentive to sell off rhino hunts as quickly as possible before a rhino wandered off the property or was poached, and the animals’ numbers dwindled. But the Theft of Game Act of 1991 decreed that white rhinos that could be identified according to certain criteria such as a brand or ear tag could be privately owned. It then made sense for private ranchers to breed rhinos and also limit rhino trophy hunting to sustainable levels. As a result, southern white rhino populations flourished, and it is the only rhino species with a large enough population to avoid the endangered species list.
As we celebrate International Tiger Day and consider the plight of the big cat, we must change our approach to conservation if we want to keep the species around for generations to come. As uncomfortable as some may be with the idea of harvesting tigers for market use, tigers continue to be slaughtered to near-extinction by black-market poachers even given existing prohibitions. Many of these regulations misalign incentives and promote illegal, unsustainable black-market trade. The successes of the Nile crocodile and southern white rhino demonstrated how property rights and markets can help preserve animals when rhetoric and bans fail. Mitra had a point – it’s time for tigers to be a local asset and allow commerce to be a powerful ally of their conservation.