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.

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.

……..

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.

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{ 27 comments }

Al August 15, 2006 at 12:20 pm

If tigers taste good, they will never go extinct. Sign me up to try tiger steak if it becomes available.

It's grrrrrrrrrrrreat!

John Dewey August 15, 2006 at 12:40 pm

I don't know. I once watched a bull chase my brother across a field. That was funny. Would it have been as funny watching him evade a man-eater? or two or three of them?

What a creative proposal! I just hope the tigers are kept 12,000 miles away from my house.

Bruce Hall August 15, 2006 at 3:54 pm

Although the idea may be repugnant to PETA and those with the idea that animals need to live in the wild in order to ensure that their "animal knowledge"… how to survive… is passed on from generation to generation, the concept is not too strange considering how zoos have been around for millenia and animals in those facilities "earn" their keep by drawing in paying gawkers.

The difference here is that it may be quite difficult to "domesticate" tigers and the alternative is to confine them in rather prison-like environments until their "by-products" can be "harvested."

Sounds like a bad science-fiction story.

Robert Cote August 15, 2006 at 3:58 pm

Agreed. I often annoy ill informed Luddite self styled conservationists that Whale Oil is the obvious prefered alternative to petroleum as whales are the renewable resource.

Ann August 15, 2006 at 5:17 pm

A better way to save the tiger might be to flood China with subsidized Viagra. Yes, they use other parts of the tiger as well, but the demand is driven largely by that one most valuable (male) tiger part that the article forgot to mention.

True_Liberal August 15, 2006 at 8:36 pm

This principle has been well proven in Africa; In those countries where elephants are "Protected" by the regime, corruption and poaching are producing near-extinction. In countries where they are held by private owners, elephants are so plentiful as to become pests.

Wild Pegasus August 15, 2006 at 8:57 pm

Although all of this is true, part of the desire is to have the tigers roam free in their natural habitat. Tigers raised on ranches aren't in their wild, natural state.

- Josh

Robert Cote August 15, 2006 at 10:27 pm

Ask the tiger to choose between a built environment and dead. Well I guess since the tiger isn't answering we better choose for it.

rubic_cube August 16, 2006 at 1:37 am

It is a thought, a typical out-of-the-box type. But, there are many other things that have to bear in mind.

1. Do we, human beings, alter the law of nature? Are we attempting to domestic the grand wild cat and diminish its call of the wild?

2. There is a limit to what you can commoditize. Men have commoditized women already. It cannot get worse than that. Spare the wild life please!

3. Like correctly mentioned, it is the funding that is an issue. Tigers are expensive to maintain. They are left best in the wild. If China can do it, why not India? Infact Indian wilderness conditions are better suited to the Tiger than Chinese. Why not capitalise on that?

4. The proposal to eventually butcher Tigers for their parts is as unethical as cloning is. What is the difference between a Tiger and Cattle then?

5. Religious tolerances! Some communities / countries, Tiger is sacred. One dare not tamper with religious tolerances.

6. If Tigers were bred with such vigor, the commercial value is going to dip. It is because of their rarity that they are as expensive.

While Tiger conservation is a very important activity to be undertaken, this is the last method that should be adopted. I would rather not have it adopted than see those magnificient creatures traded like commercial items.

John Dewey August 16, 2006 at 10:42 am

American bison were near extinction a century ago, with fewer than 1,000 remaining. Nearly 400,000 bison now inhabit North America. A few are found in national parks, but most bison live on ranches in the western U.S. and Canada. The development of the bison meat industry has ensured the survival of this magnificant animal. Continued expansion of this industry will also grow the economies of very poor counties in the Dakotas and other states.

American bison ranching was definitely a win for bison and a win for some humans. So why not tigers also?

Morgan August 16, 2006 at 10:49 am

cube:

Responding in order to your points:

1) "Tigers are wild" is a law of nature? I've seen tigers in zoos, yet no rift in space-time was apparent. Maybe The Tsunami was Gaia's punishment for violating her laws.

2) Where are the woman farms? Texas, I'll bet.

3) Homes are expensive to build. It is best to use naturally occurring shelter.

4) What is the difference between tigers and cattle? Ummmm. Errrr. I give up. What is the difference?

5) In some communities and countries, cows are sacred. And yet we dare to domesticate and eat them. They're delicious.

6) Oranges became common, their price dropped… egad! it was rarity that made them valuable! Now no one wants to grow oranges, because they aren't as valuable. Which is why you can't find them anywhere anymore. A tragic and all too common case of capitalism causing shortages of supply by increasing the efficiency of production.

You'd rather see tigers extinct than see them lose what you perceive as their dignity. How noble of you.

Al August 16, 2006 at 12:42 pm

John Dewey,

I agree entirely. The only way to save the tigers is to eat them. I just don't know if they taste any good. I almost certain they're useless as pets.

Someone should open a thread for recipes . . .

John Dewey August 16, 2006 at 1:53 pm

Morgan,

I agree with all your answers, except for the swipe at Texas. My wife is a native Texan, and she would rip your eyes out at the mere suggestion that Real Texas Women could somehow be "commoditized". Unless you've been married for 30 years to a Texas woman, you probably can't appreciate how independent they truly are. But just consider these examples: Barbara Jordan; Ann Richards; Molly Ivins. Texas Republican women you may know are a bit more reserved, but just as iron-willed.

John Dewey August 16, 2006 at 2:04 pm

Al,

Perhaps tigers have no use as pets. But remember the lion that Jerry Orbach used in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight"? He used it to hasten the "insurance" payments from local businesses.

Consider how effective a tiger would be at guarding a warehouse. Burglars might attempt to outrun a doberman, but will likely pass on a building with a "Beware of Tiger" sign.

Morgan August 16, 2006 at 2:29 pm

John,

I damn sure couldn't have put it in Missouri, or I'd have had trouble closer to home.

I used to know a song – "Can you tame wild women?" or something like that. Experience says no, and they're all wild in their own ways.

Truth is, though, I chose Texas because Halliburton is headquartered in Houston. I thought it was a good bet they were running these farms, what with being so evil and capitalist and all.

Vishnu Vyas August 16, 2006 at 10:29 pm

Regarding tiger as pets, they are no different cats, just a whole lot bigger.

My grandfather during his service as a forest officer had both a pet tiger and a pet fox(or wild-dog) before it was outlawed in India to keep such endangered animals as pets.

The problem with markets doing the conservation is that once tigers go out of fashion(either as pets or as replacements for viagra), there won't be any will to conserve them at all, then what?

JohnDewey August 17, 2006 at 3:42 am

Vishnu,

Could the market for tiger pelts and tiger meat be large enough to sustain at least a few tiger ranches? Consider the example of American Bison ranches I offered earlier. Only a tiny percentage of humans eat bison meat. Yet that small demand is sufficient to justify ranch herds in excess of 300,000 animals.

I guess I trust free markets enough to believe that some level of commercial tiger ranching will always be economical.

Vishnu Vyas August 17, 2006 at 5:36 am

John,

I don't mind if there is a small market, my worry is that if there is no market.

Regarding tiger meat, I'm not sure there will be a market at all, (because tigers like other carnivores don't pack that much of a punch in their meat in terms of nutrition, etc..). The only place where I can see a market for tigers is viagra replacements and chinese medicine. Hope that doesn't go out of fashion.

Secondly, I can't seem to come up with a good reason why we should conserve in the first place? We might loose bio-diversity, but so what? Even nature doesn't mind conservation, there are storms, floods etc.. that regularly kill lots of animals. So is there any reason that we should conserve at all?

JohnDewey August 17, 2006 at 7:33 am

Vishnu,

Very few if any storms and floods wipe out entire species. It is the rapid and deliberate elimination or near-elimination of species by humans that is so appalling. Tens of millions of American bison roamed the American West for at least a million years. In a mere two decades, humans had slaughtered all but 750. No storm or flood ever had so rapid an impact.

Quite frankly, I'm surprised to hear the question: "Why should we conserve in the first place?" I don't remember ever hearing anyone ask that question in my lifetime of 55 years. I have heard some question the economics of zoos or evvironmental restrictions. But never anyone questioning whether conservation is desirable.

Mitra's proposal bypasses the issue of whether we should spend money to preserve species. He simply says give the free market a shot at doing so. It costs no one except the entrepreneur willing to risk it.

Incidentally, it doesn't matter to many consumers whether tiger meat is tasty. The key for some is whether or not tiger steaks will impress their dinner duests. I don't know where you live, but if it's the U.S. you are probably aware of how much disposable income our wealthy and near-wealthy citizens enjoy. They won't blink an eye at spending $50 or $100 a pound to impress others.

Jeff Younger August 17, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Bravo! Most environmental problems result from transgression of private property rights.

Now, if only we could start applying the same thinking to whales. The free-range model of ranching is well known, well studied, and easy to implement on the high seas. Whales can be "branded" with electronic tags, and harvested in "roundups.

As I've written before, I cannot understand the political dynamic that allows governments to pursue failed environmental policies — over, and over and over.

Vishnu Vyas August 17, 2006 at 4:25 pm

John,

I asked the question about wether we need conservation at all because, Hard as I might try, I can't come up with a convincing answer.

People talk about bio-diversity and other such stuff, but again why?

What's wrong if the world is full of plantations of cash/food crops that humans need, we only rear animals that we eat or use as pets or have some use for, etc..?

Would that affect human beings in anyway at all?

(The only thing that I've come up with so far, is opportunity cost, i.e some thing like the HIV killer lurking inside the rain-forest).

JohnDewey August 18, 2006 at 12:37 am

Vishnu: "People talk about bio-diversity and other such stuff, but again why?"

Here's three explanations:

http://tinyurl.com/ltjbj

http://tinyurl.com/oscgj

http://tinyurl.com/rd8pq

If you need more, simply go to GOOGLE and type in "Why do we need biodiversity?"

Jesrad August 18, 2006 at 9:18 am

"I don't mind if there is a small market, my worry is that if there is no market."

If there is no market, then the animal is left alone in its original environment, problem solved.

The reason species get endangered has two possible explanations depending on cases:
1) destruction of its natural habitat for human profit,
2) there's a market for its "byproducts" AND herding is forbidden.

Marketisation of all endangered species might not entirely solve problem 1, but as reported in the post, authorizing breeding might just be the solution for problem 2.

I know from experience that letting people breed parrots help in both conserving the species AND reducing poaching. Erithacus parrots are a good example. Friends and I are fighting for the right to breed species that are rarer and more "protected" like Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus.

Will C. August 19, 2006 at 9:23 am

In Thailand elephant herds can devastate crops so they became a problem to humans. (The crops were better eating than what was available in the jungle. The solution was to have elephant camps where the elephant herds would live. They are used to entertain tourists and to do work. As far as I can tell the camps are privately owned.

great August 19, 2006 at 7:22 pm

great suggestion
i also would enjoy trying a tiger steak lol

Alan K. Henderson August 21, 2006 at 12:01 am

Thomas Sowell said in one of his books that the only endangered animals are those that aren't owned by anybody.

RSC August 22, 2006 at 9:25 pm

Domesticated bison do not interact with any natural predators, do not live in a natural ecosystem and do not play any role in increasing the biodiversity of a country. It is an entirely different matter to have wild bison, wolves, grizzlies, cougars, wolverines … wandering over large natural areas where the destructiveness of man is kept to a minimum. Wildlife conservation is all about quality and not quantity. The ten thousand captive tigers in the U.S mean nothing to biodiversity, while the 2000 wild tigers in India are icons of the entire natural world. Mitra's ideas are useless at best and dangerous at worst.

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