Roaring Applause for this Proposal

by Don Boudreaux on August 15, 2006

in Environment, Property Rights

Barun Mitra, the vastly talented head of India’s Liberty Institute, has this splendid op-ed in today’s New York Times.  In it, Barun proposes that the best way to keep tigers from going extinct is to allow them to be owned and traded — that is, objects of commerce.

Here’s the gist:

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.

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.


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.

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

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.


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