Can a Wildlife Conservationist Change His Stripes?

A lot of large mammals in Africa and Asia are currently threatened with extinction because the products into which they can be made into are in high demand around the world. Whether it’s the black rhino or the Bengal tiger, wild populations have been shrinking for decades. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that the traditional response to poaching – a total ban on trade in threatened animals – has failed to stop the problem.

This strategy is embodied by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which went into force in 1975. Several free market advocates have criticized CITES over the years for effectively removing the possibility of sustainably harvesting from privately (or even locally/communally) owned populations. Most recently, zoologist Brendan Moyle has written on the topic of tiger conservation for the Institute of Public Affairs’ magazine:

Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the tiger’s survival. But poaching was once a problem for crocodile conservation
too. Widespread crocodile farming and a CITES-sanctioned trade drove poachers out of the market. The same approach could be applied to tigers.

China has perhaps 5,000 tigers in captive facilities (the USA has closer to 10,000). Tigers aren’t all that complicated to breed. But tiger farming is unpalatable to many people—it seems unethical, cold-blooded. It isn’t clear what makes tigers special. Various wild animals are farmed or ranched, including crocodiles, emus, parrots and butterflies. And in terms of cruelty, having wild tigers killed by traps or inefficient poisons in India far exceeds the fate of tigers in farms. It might be nicer to see tigers in the wild than on farms, but to make that happen we need to close down the black market.

Of course, when it comes to tigers and CITES, we must always reference the work of our good friend Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in Delhi. Last year Barun had an op-ed in The New York Times which made the case that we must “sell the tiger to save it”:

…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.

Of course, this pragmatic view of the tiger’s place in the world generated some backlash from the more sentimental animal lovers. One letter writer even detected “something morally odious” about the plan. That sort of response is unfortunate, since it implies that at least some supporters of the current policy are refusing to even consider an alternative out of a misplaced romantic notion about ‘noble beasts.’ One almost gets the impression that they’d rather see the species go extinct under the current system of government control than be saved by the market. Let’s hope they don’t prevail.