WHICH country is thinking about applying free-market principles to wildlife preservation and, in the process, improving the survival chances of a long-endangered species while giving its economy a boost?
Communist China, of course.
China joined the international effort to protect the tiger in 1993. But today there is a growing recognition among many Chinese officials that a policy of prohibition and trade restrictions has not benefited the tiger as much as it has helped poachers and smugglers of tigers and tiger parts.
Conservationists say the worldwide illegal trade in forest products and wildlife is between $10 billion and $12 billion, with more than half of that coming from Asia.
Of the planet’s estimated 5,000 wild tigers, about 75 percent are in India, which, like most nations, believes that commerce and conservation are incompatible. Only a relative handful of tigers — probably a few dozen — can be found in China’s forests. (The United States is home to some 10,000 tigers, owned by zoos and private citizens.) The tiger, in short, is still staring at extinction.
But like forests, animals are renewable resources. If you think of tigers as products, it becomes clear that demand provides opportunity, rather than posing a threat. For instance, 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.
So it can be for the tiger. In pragmatic terms, this is an extremely valuable animal. Given the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicines, which make use of everything from tiger claws (to treat insomnia) to tiger fat (leprosy and rheumatism), and the prices this kind of harvesting can bring (as much as $20 for claws, and $20,000 for a skin), the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival. A single farmed specimen might fetch as much as $40,000; the retail value of all the tiger products might be three to five times that amount.
Yet for the last 30 or so years, the tiger has been priced at zero, while millions of dollars have been spent to protect it and prohibit trade that might in fact help save the species. 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 Project Tiger, a conservation project backed in part by the World Wildlife Fund, was launched in 1972 and adopted by the government of India a year later.
If we truly value the tiger, this crisis presents an opportunity to help it buy its way out of the extinction it now faces. The tiger breeds easily, even in captivity; zoos in India are constantly told by the Central Zoo Authority not to breed tigers because they are expensive to maintain. In China, which has about 4,000 tigers in captivity, breeding has been perfected. According to senior officials I met in China, given a free hand, the country could produce 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years.
(Disclosure: I have been writing on tiger conservation for more than 10 years, and over the course of that time have suggested using the power of commerce to save the tiger. Earlier this year, I was invited by the State Forestry Administration of the People’s Republic of China as part of an international group to learn about the Chinese perspective on the issue; the agency paid for my airfare and accommodations.)
Wildlife farming and ranching could potentially break the poverty trap that most forest villagers find themselves in. In Zimbabwe, before the current spiral into chaos, villagers had property rights on the wildlife in the forests around them, and they earned revenue by selling a limited number of hunting licenses. They had a stake.
At present there is no incentive for forest dwellers to protect tigers, and so poachers, traffickers and unscrupulous traders prevail. The temptation of high profits, in turn, attracts organized crime; this is what happens when government regulations subvert the law of supply and demand.
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. With selective breeding and the development of reintroduction techniques, it might be possible to return the tiger to some of its remaining natural habitats. And by recognizing the rights of the local villagers to earn legitimate revenue from wildlife sources, the tiger could stage a comeback.
Market economics greatly favor the tiger. If China decides to unleash the tiger’s commercial potential, the king of the forest might be more secure in his kingdom.
Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, a research organization that promotes free-market economics.
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