Is There Hope for the Tiger?

Published: 
Thursday, April 7, 2016
Posted by: 

Throwback Thursday: From the Vault


Tiger photo courtesy of Soren Wolf 

Yesterday, tigers were declared functionally extinct in Cambodia. There are no longer any breeding populations and the last Cambodian tiger documented by camera trap was seen in 2007. Once abundant in Cambodia’s forests, the big cats have faced the double threat of poaching and deforestation. Despite the efforts of conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, tigers have been hunted to virtual extinction by nomadic gangs of poachers. As National Geographic points out, “Tigers are walking gold, worth a fortune on the black market.”

Last month, the Cambodian government announced a $20-million plan to reintroduce tigers brought in from India, Thailand, and Malaysia. Will imported tigers have a better chance of surviving? What institutions are required to protect the last wild tigers?

PERC research fellow Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes has long studied the plight of endangered species and the incentives involved in their conservation. In 1998 he discussed the plight of the tiger in his PERC Policy Series “Who Will Save the Wild Tiger?”:

Tiger conservation is, ultimately, an issue of incentives. Command-and-control prescriptions for saving the tiger have largely failed because the people who actually determine the destiny of wild tigers have few incentives to save them…. We must convert live tigers from liabilities into assets.

Clearly, economic incentives can positively affect tiger conservation, but current incentives for tiger conservation are mixed. In too many cases, perverse incentives are at work. For example, many range state governments subsidize development projects and activities such as clear-cutting and conventional agriculture…. Another problem is the high value of dead tigers. In some countries the prices paid to poachers for a single tiger skeleton may be as much as ten times the average annual per capita gross national product.

To develop more positive incentives for tiger conservation, the importance of interested and affected parties must be recognized.... While people in developed countries such as the United States express a desire to ‘save the tiger’ by donating money to environmental groups, people in developing countries may not want to ‘save the tiger.’ Since it threatens the lives of both humans and livestock, the costs to local people are usually high and the benefits low…. Few local people benefit directly from the presence of wild tigers, but they bear considerable costs.

As evidenced by the news out of Cambodia, traditional approaches of involving government and distant environmental groups in tiger conservation have failed to save the big cat.

Fortunately, some groups are realizing the necessity of involving locals – the people that actually interact with tigers on the ground – to protect tigers from poachers. The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) was founded to gather information on wildlife crime, especially that involving tigers, and assist enforcement authorities in curbing wildlife crime. WPSI knew that poachers often pay locals for information on where and when anti-poaching patrols move through specific areas, and where tigers had recently been spotted. The local people who live in the vicinity of tigers are poor and can easily be bought off by poachers.

In response, WPSI has started a “secret information reward scheme,” where they promise anonymity and pay for tips that lead to poaching arrests. With an incentive to report poaching activity, locals are less likely to be bought off by poachers. WPSI’s approach of providing local people a direct benefit for protecting tigers has resulted in 892 poaching arrests and saved many tigers. If its reintroduced tigers are to stand a chance against poachers, Cambodia would be wise to implement a similar program that involves local communities in wildlife conservation.

Species around the world are at risk of being eradicated by poaching. If we want to protect biodiversity, it is imperative that we get the incentives right. Despite big budgets and the best of intentions, governments and international wildlife groups are struggling to save wildlife. The only hope in keeping this “walking gold” walking is ensuring that locals are able to cash in on tigers’ survival.

Hannah Downey is the policy and partnerships coordinator and a research fellow at PERC, helping to move projects along from conception to completion. After being introduced to PERC her freshman year of college, she pursued the ideas of free market environmentalism and became a research assistant as a senior. She graduated from Montana State...
Read More > More Articles by Hannah Downey >