The economics of saving tigers

The economics of saving tigers

The tiger is a beleaguered animal. Its majesty was taken away long ago. Today its habitat has shrunk dramatically from what it was in 1900. Illegal hunting has done the rest. The search for black and orange stripes is often futile even in protected forests.

There may, however, be good news. In a paper published in the September issue of the online journal PLoS Biology, a group of 21 researchers have plodded through data across Asia to estimate the costs of saving the tiger. Their appraisal is a bit too optimistic. But first the good news, if it can be called that.

In Asia, India ranks ahead of all other countries in tiger numbers and the relative success of tiger conservation. The paper estimates that there are fewer than 3,500 cats left in the wild, occupying less than 7% of their historical range. Of the 42 “source sites" in Asia, these sites being locations with the potential to maintain at least 25 breeding females, most (18) are located in India.

That’s where the good news ends. Even in India, only five source sites maintain tiger populations close to their estimated carrying capacity. The average annual cost of protecting and monitoring tigers in the 42 source sites across Asia is $930 per sq. km. Take two of our national parks with very different conservation histories, Sariska and Ranthambore, and one sees that the costs of monitoring and protection per year are a pittance: Rs1.27 crore per year for Sariska and Rs1.82 crore per year from Ranthambore. Yet, there is no tiger left in Sariska while Ranthambore has problems in keeping the cats from running away. Clearly, the nature of costs has not been fully understood.

One key difference between the two parks is the presence of humans resident there. The costs of relocating them are serious. Not only are there monetary and physical costs of resettling, but the more serious, and difficult to estimate, costs of ideas. These include giving tribals the right to land in forests when they can be resettled elsewhere at much lower costs and provided better facilities than they get in forests. But how does one estimate the cost of “preserving the tribal way of life"? That is cruel to the traditional forest dwellers as well. At their level of income, it is simply unfair to expect them to conserve forests and not consume what needs to be protected. The marginal propensity to consume at those income levels is too high to ensure the survival of forests and tigers. These are the real costs that India has to bear to save the tiger.

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