OPINION: Save tigers in the wild, not on farms

Jay Mazoomdaar
Posted online: Friday, November 17, 2006 at 0000 hrs

There’s a proposal to raise the tiger, then sell it, to save it. But it’s not just about saving the big cat but saving it in the wild.

By the time you read this, Barun Mitra, director of the Delhi-based Liberty Institute, will be done with his lecture at a Washington event organised by US’ Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The subject is interesting: Sell the Tiger to save it.

CEI describes Mitra as “an independent thinktank dedicated to empowering the people by harnessing the power of the market and onewho visited China a few months back as a guest of the government to learn about Chinese efforts at tiger conservation”.

Currently working on expanding his argument for private tiger conservation in a paper to be published by CEI, Mitra has made his case earlier in several Indian and international publications, including The New York Times, and his fundamentals are deceptively simple: “Despite the growing environmental bureaucracy and budgets, and despite the proliferation of conservationists and conferences, the tiger is as close to extinction as it has been since the Project Tiger was launched in 1972. But animals are renewable resources. If you think of tigers as products, it becomes clear that demand provides opportunity.”

With indications that Beijing, under pressure from the strong traditional medicine lobby, is likely to open up tiger trade for its domestic industry, Mitra’s campaign has worried conservationists. A group of experts, including those from WWF-US, have already met in Washington last Friday. Most of them were to attend the lecture by Mitra today and present an opposing view, if permitted. In India, the Ministry of Environment and Forest, sources say, may also issue a disclaimer, disassociating the government’s policies from Mitra’s views. Very few, however, remember that tiger farming was an issue of bilateral cooperation in the first and only tiger protocol between India and China signed in 1995 by then minister Kamal Nath and his Chinese counterpart Song Jian. The protocol holds good – till, and only if, the fresh Indo-China tiger MoU being discussed in recent weeks overwrites it — and India remains a potential partner in tiger farming. But that is another (Kamal Nath’s) story. For now, let us focus on the four key points of Mitra’s theory that challenge the entire paradigm of conservation:

Mitra writes: “There are perhaps 1.5 billion head of cattle and buffalo and 2 billion goats and sheep in the world today. These are among the most exploited of animals, yet they are not in danger of dying out; there is incentive, in these instances, for humans to conserve.”

Is the idea to domesticate the tiger, or why else cite examples of cattle or buffalo? Besides, conservation is not about saving the tiger from going extinct. Chinese farms and US ranches apart, zoos round the world have enough tigers today to save specimens for generations to come. The idea is to save the tiger in the wild so that with it flourishing at the top of the food chain, everything down the pyramid flourishes. If the pyramid is alive, so will be the forests that shelter it and the water systems that are sustained by such forests. Conservation, Mitra fails to understand, is not about having thousands of tigers strutting about in cages lined up in some manicured ranch.

Mitra, however, offers a vague prescription: “The tiger breeds easily, even in captivity. Given a free hand, China could produce 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years. With the development of reintroduction techniques, it might be possible to return the tiger to some of its remaining natural habitats.”

Till date, reintroduction of captive-bred tigers to the wild never succeeded. Repeated efforts in India, including those by famed Billy Arjan Singh of Dhudwa, have backfired for several reasons: Such tigers lack the wild instinct and skills and usually turn man-eaters (being captive-bred they don’t consider humans alien) etc etc. Even the Chinese plan to reintroduce tigers bred in a South African zoo has not taken off. Clearly, it is at best wishful at this point to claim that farm tigers can replenish the wild stock.

Mitra goes on to write: “At present there is no incentive for forest dwellers to protect tigers, and so poachers, traffickers and unscrupulous traders prevail. But tiger-breeding facilities will ensure a supply of wildlife at an affordable price, and so eliminate the incentive for poachers and, consequently, the danger for those tigers left in the wild.”

WWF chief scientist Eric Dinerstein countered this claim very effectively: “If China were to lift its 1993 ban on domestic trade in tiger parts, the incentives for poachers would be even greater, as there would be no way to distinguish the bones of ‘farmed’ tigers from those of wild tigers. Poachers could wipe out what remains of wild populations while laundering their goods through legal trade channels. Save the Chinese farms for ducks and pigs. Save the wild lands of Asia for their tigers and the millions of other species protected in tiger reserves.”

I will add only two points to Dinerstein’s. First, there are already more than 15,000 private tigers in the US and China alone. But still the meager global wild stock of less than 5,000 is depleting by the day. Second, it costs a lot to rear a farm tiger till it can be marketed for a reasonable margin. For traders, wild tigers come virtually for free and mean “total profit”.

Mitra, the “pro-people economist”, also argues that tiger farming could potentially break the poverty trap that most forest villagers find themselves in. He wants to recognise “the rights of the local villagers to earn legitimate revenue from wildlife sources” but cites the practice of “selling a limited number of hunting licenses” like they used to do in Zimbabwe.

In simpler terms, Mitra wants farm-bred tigers to be released (not reintroduced) in the forests so that hunting licenses can be issued with part of the profit going to the local communities. In effect, he wants to reduce our forests to expansive hunting ranches where helpless captive-bred tigers — and with them the remaining wild ones, if any — will be subject to legal butchery in the name of helping the communities.

For some strange reason, Mitra doesn’t even consider the idea of empowering the same communities by engaging them in protection work and tourism. If our wilderness is protected well, it can sustain a multi-billion dollar tourism industry. Together the two initiatives can absorb all the local stakeholders Mitra is apparently concerned for. And as a huge bonus, the forests protected in the name of the tiger will also ensure our water and food security.

Chasing his market dream, Mitra should remember that though technology may have withstood the Made-in-China model, ecology won’t.

jay.mazoomdaar@expressindia.com

http://www.indianexpress.com/story/16773._.html

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