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Conservation, Economics & Human Nature

Tiger swim

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

India's tigers are highly endangered, and there are a number of laws and organizations devoted to saving them. Yet their numbers continue to dwindle. Barun Mitra writes:

"If we are really concerned about the fate of wildlife, we need to ask why it is that in the US -- where hunting species such as blackbuck is permitted -- the population of blackbacks in the US state of Texas alone is 40,000, compared to only 25,000 in the whole of India. Equally, where in the US trade of live tigers is permitted, tiger numbers are in excess of 15,000, where in India, their numbers have dwindled to around 3,500."

Hmmm, point acknowledged. Meanwhile, this was a sobering statistic set:

"Conservationists estimate that the worldwide illegal trade in forest products and wildlife is between USD 10-12 billion, over half of it coming from SE Asia alone."


Fortunately, there is potential good news here as well. Barun Mitra notes that tigers breed very easily, even in captivity. Yet most places deliberately avoid breeding them, even as scarcity continues to make poaching in the wild ever-more profitable.


Mitra follows up with a look at the current economic incentives around preservation vs. hunting. It sums up as an attenuated version of what Wretchard calls Death By Insanity. As Mitra notes:

"The Indian experience till a few years ago provides the best illustration of the tragic consequences of dysfunctional economic regulations. The babus wielded the power, smugglers oiled the wheels, blackmarketeers made a killing and the law enforcers took their cut. The poor consumer bore the brunt, as the economy ground to a halt."

The tigers haven't done so great, either. The current approach clearly isn't working.

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Ecological solution based on free markets are somewhat unusual in the field, which has generally been dominated by statists and socialists. Given the failure of attempts in this mold to stem the ongoing decline of India's tigers, for instance, it's worth broadening the way the field treats these questions. Free market thinking needs to be a much larger aspect of the critique (for reasons a schoolchild understands), and a larger part of the solutions palette as well.

But the Barun Mitra article I link to is only a brief window into such thinking, not the core of a tiger protection alternative. At least, not yet. If free market greens like Mitra's Liberty Institute want to play in this kind of field and kick its effectiveness up a notch or three, they'll have to step up their game, too.

It's not enough to note that many of the current approaches to environmental protection ignore basic human motivations and work poorly, or to question the motives of those who continue pushing such solutions in ways that coincidentally increase their own power. If we truly wish to fill in the gaps of our current failures, we'll need more than just a critique. We'll need real alternatives, too.

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Don't get me wrong. Looking at the current set of imbalanced incentives is a valuable contribution. It's hard to read it and imagine that the current course of action can succeed.

So what replaces that? And before we offer an answer, how about some more questions for free marketers to take up.

For instance, I'd like to see something that addresses the demand limitation effects of prohibition re: the tigers, and see some free market analysis that looks dispassionately on the likely result of removing the ban. To that, I'd add questions like:

  • Which economic spin off industries might the current ban be forestalling?
  • Which ones is it currently enabling?
  • What happens after the ban is gone, but before breeding has a chance to produce the tigers required to meet demand?
  • Yet without the ban's removal, why breed for profit?
  • How to resolve the catch 22?
  • Even if we do resolve the catch 22, will there be enough tigers to represent a solution, or will this just deliver a coup de grace to the wild population?
  • Any other experiments we could do, or ways to start small, in order to refine our understanding of the changes? Any analogous situatons we can point to?
  • Or is it so late that we must simply act and try something new, because delay could well mean total failure anyway?

That's what I mean when I say that free market ecologists will have to begin to offer alternatives. That means full-fledged policy proposals that examine and address angles like the ones I've suggested here, not just blanket ideological arguments.

There's no shortage of work to do, and no shortage of gaps and failures in the field. If free market greens do step up, therefore, all of us stand to benefit. Including the tigers.

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

UPDATE: The Tigers will need the help. Reader Ruth writes in with this: "Indian task force says tigers under siege". "The task force said India would have to work with China to stop huge illegal trade in tiger body parts. Tiger organs, teeth, bones and penises are used in traditional Chinese medicine."

Let's see, we're going to ask for help from a Top 3 nation on all the global corruption reports, which happens to have a culture whose native medicine tells people tiger parts will help them feel better/ live longer, and for which people will therefore pay exorbitant sums and go to strenuous effort. Yeah, that'll work.

The current approach can only end in one outcome.


Some constructive thinking. I suggest some kudos to WWF which has made it more prestigious to wear their logo on a t-shirt than a fur on some one's back.

Why not provide an alternative market for tiger skins, etc.? We could breed them here in the United States (who knew so many people did already?), as many as you want, and sell them at market prices. The ones who are born wild could continue to be protected vigorously, preferably by rangers with shoot-on-sight authority.

In theory, the ready availability of tiger products at market prices, combined with the immediate captial penalty for poaching, should undercut the incentive to hunt wild tigers to the point that it isn't done.

Meanwhile, American men would have an all-new way to cut their teeth. You wanna be a bronco buster? How about a tiger tamer? You wanna wrestle steers? How about great big cats?

Seems like a win-win to me.

There is a difference betwen 15,000 tigers living in captivity and 3,500 in the wild. It's a lot easier to keep captive tigers than it is to maintain the amount of wilderness requires to support that many wild tiger, so the comparison is not apples to apples.

The original posting focuses only on the tiger, but the real issue is protecting the ecosystem of which the tiger is top predator and symbol. Captive tigers in cages are a poor and lonely substitute for an intact Indian forest with all its' other inhabitants. Successful examples of "free market" ecosystem protection are rare to non-existent, while most of the planet uses the government run national park approach with great success.
My suspicion is that "free market" approaches fit your ideology, so of course you recommend them, but the simplest and most practical approach is to define larger parks and natural reserves and protect them with adequate enforcement. The "government-run" approach is working for the grizzly bear, the buffalo, the grey wolf, etc.,etc. so why should India be any different?
"Free Market" approaches were responsible for many (most?) of recent species extinctions and collapse (North American cod fishery collapse as a result of market competition, passenger pigeon market hunted to extinction, many whale/fish species commercially harvested to population collapse and possible extinction).
Tiger populations are being driven down by classical market dynamics. As tigers become more scarce, supply of tiger parts for Asian medicine/superstion declines against a rising demand. Moving along the supply demand curves means that the last tiger should fetch an astronomical price.
To paraphrase Amory Lovins "Markets make a good servant, a poor master, and a lousy religion".

For an opposing view, consider the bears of Romania. In 1950, a few years after going communist, Romania had about 860 bears. By 1988, the last year of Ceausescu's dictatorship, there were 7,780 bears, or fifteen times as many bears as are in the comparably sized Yellowstone Park bear sanctuary. Free markets cannot be credited with these gains: it was Ceasusescu's obsession with hunting and his willingness to put the resources of the State into farming bears and the ban on private ownership of firearms.

This info is taken from an Atlantic Montly article that may be subscription only.

PD Shaw, consider Ceaucescu's methods. Poor trade.

And Tom, the tiger is ecosystem-dependent as an apex predator. But even if we preserved the ecosystem, looks like they're still toast given the current demand for tiger parts and hence economic incentives.

As for the cod fishery, you're talking to a Canadian here. That was the classic socialist "regulated commons" approach at work, driven by political pressure not free market incentives. The fact that one can sell something does not a free market make. Ownership, tradeability, et. al. are also required - and solutions like tradeable permits based on science rather than political decrees were suggested. But they were consistently rejected because the politicians wanted to be seen as munificently pushing for catch permits and hence jobs.

Which brings us to where we are today, with no cod fishery to speak of at all. This kind of failure is hardly unique, and unless the field is expanded to include free market critiques and solutions, we can expect more in this pattern.

Sounds like there's someone protecting an ideology here, and it isn't me.

the simplest and most practical approach is to define larger parks and natural reserves and protect them with adequate enforcement.

That works fine in wealthy nations, but it's a failure in many poorer ones due to lack of resources and attendant corruption. Apparently your "solution" is already a failure in India, so re-proposing it is silly.

A "free-market" solution might be allowing tiger ranching, driving down the market price of tiger parts. That takes the pressure off the wild tigers, and taxes on it could fund your national parks and their rangers. It's at least worth a thought instead of dismissal.

The bison and grizzly are both game species in the US, by the way, and if the grey wolf makes a big comeback, it will end up being hunted as a varmint. So we have more than just a "national park" approach going for us there, too. To borrow your own phrase: "Why should India be any different?"

I have read that Tigers in India prefer to eat Indians over any other diet. That well could be why their numbers are dwindling! It could be that the Indians don't want to be the next meal for a Tiger.

I guess one of the questions that we have to ask is why are we "saving" the tiger or the blackbuck?

Personally, I find no value in canned hunt of any animal, so the fact that an increasing proportion of exotic animals exist in U.S. hunting ranches versus their natural habitats means nothing to me. Actually, I'm a little hostile, but I digress.

I don't think we need to worry about tiger or blackbucks dying out, but some of their dependent species may not be so lucky.

I agree with Tom that the reason to preserve the Tiger is to preserve the ecosystem of which it is part. And I really know of no way to do that short of control of the habitat. This is difficult in countries with weak governments, poor economies and/or inadequate law enforcement. Westerners interested in preserving the ecosystem need to make the contributions necessary to buy the land and police the land. This seems doable in India, probably an insane idea in parts of East Africa. The Nature Conservancy does that type of work in this hemisphere.

PD, Tom,

The linked article seems to suggest that the problem isn't habitat destruction, but illegal hunting. Enforcement, at the moment, doesn't seem to be working, for whatever reason. So private hunting ranches (to which I am also mildly hostile) and straightforward tiger ramching may be a key parts of the solution.

The linked article seems to suggest that the problem isn't habitat destruction, but illegal hunting.

Well, I'd argue that the linked article from the Liberty Institute ignores the issue of habitat destruction and offers a cure for illegal hunting. One of the other links (if you click around a bit) has this FAQ :

What is the biggest threat the tiger faces?

By far the biggest threat is habitat destruction. Poachers are last in line.

Depends on how you define the problem. Frankly, I'm concerned with preserving tiger habitat, tigers being incidental to that. If tiger farming can be used to help reduce demand for tiger and thus defray the cost of enforcing tiger preserves, then great. But the vision of tiger farms as the sole cure, leaves me quite cold. I am not interested in a policy that saves tigers by converting them all into livestock.

But I also believe that tiger poaching is an independent harm that is harmful to good government and good economics.

Responding to
"the simplest and most practical approach is to define larger parks and natural reserves and protect them with adequate enforcement.

That works fine in wealthy nations, but it's a failure in many poorer ones due to lack of resources and attendant corruption. Apparently your "solution" is already a failure in India, so re-proposing it is silly."

Actually my solution of "larger parks and adequate enforcement" clearly has not been implemented. If the enforcement and protected habitat was "adequate" by definition the tiger would not be threatened. Agreed that corruption is an issue, but many less-developed nations have had very good success with the traditional national park approach (examples include Kenya, Costa Rica,etc).

Responding to Joe's points about cod fishing, unregulated market competition for natural resources (the tragedy of the commons) frequently ends in the destruction of the resource. For the cod fishery to survive the surfeit of boats and fisherman, government regulation was required. The cod collapse was a simple case of inadequate and inept government regulation, which can be fixed by competent and fair regulation rather than relying on some mythical, nonexistent "free market" approach (I would be curious to see even one example of a "free market" protecting ecosystems and endangered species).
On the other hand, every state in the US regulates hunting and fishing to preserve those natural resources. Most nations regulate and control fishing within national waters. That is just one of a myriad examples of government regulation properly functioning to protect natural resources.
Relying on solutions such as parks and government regulation/enforcement which have uncountable numbers of successful implementations strikes me as pragmatism rather than ideology.

Tom, most of the countries who have had success with the national park concept have found ways to commercialize the wildlife - hunting, tourism etc.

Tom Volckhausen believes that competent government regulation is something to reasonably expect, even when all of the incentives in place and experience point the other way. But he thinks the free market is "mythical" and has no place as a useful component and critique of proposed approaches.

Tells you all you need to know, doesn't it?

Like I said, there's an ideology shill here... and Tom, you're it.

If the enforcement and protected habitat was "adequate" by definition the tiger would not be threatened.

Well, OK, but that's rather circular. My point wasn't that national parks can't ever work, but that the preconditions for their success (lots of money for enforcement, absence of corruption) may not be present in the tiger's natural range, and thus the solution may not be practical. I can't say I know enough about India to have an informed opinion

PD, I agree with you on canned hunts, exotic farming, ecosystem protection, etc. But note that ecosystem protection is easier when you have someone funding it, such as hunters buying licenses; every state maintains (and improves) public lands for hunters seeking game species, and there is frankly an overabundance of many game species in the US today. Note also that legal hunters are annoyed by--and tend to report--poachers who try to get a free ride.

So I think there's room for some thinking beyond "build a preserve and surround it with rangers.'

Not to mention, Rob, that in the US much of the wildlife management is funded by sportsmen - even non-game wildlife - between hunting and fishing licenses and Pittman-Robertson Act funds.

Blake. Cool.

Hunting's cool.

In my homestate, the State Conservation Police don't just protect public lands, they enforce wrongful timber cutting and illegal hunting on private lands too. So, its not the creation of preserves that generate the need for enforcement, but the creation of laws and the willingness to see them enforced. Does India protect private property rights as well?

The model I would use is the Emiquon Project, in which 7,000 acres of prime farmland along the Illinois river was purchased by an environmental group in order to flood it and return it to a wetland habitat. Private money is funding it. There will probably be little, if any, public access. What's sort of interesting about the project is how unpopular it is. The local farmers are aghast that some of the best farmland in the world is being wasted. Local government doesn't want to lose the tax money. The government simply couldn't do this project with that kind of opposition.

My quote is "mythical, nonexistent "free market" approach" in which I was referring to free market approaches to ecosystem and species conservation. As before, I can list thousands of examples of government operated parks and refuges, along with hunting and fishing regulations serving to protect ecosystems and threatened species.
Can you give one successful example of a "free market" approach to ecosystem/species conservation?

Not to be dogmatic, I clearly recognize that there should be market support for conservation, whether thru sales of forest products, income from guiding/tourism, etc. But, the core need is for adequate reserves, adequately protected, and I have seen no evidence of a "free market approach" which replaces clearly defined and enforced reserve areas.

I also acknowledge that much government regulation is inept, but the fix for bad regulation is good regulation, not de-regulation as the US savings and loan debacle, Enron, and many other examples show. Examples of successful government regulation are so ubiquitous that we ignore them as fish might ignore the sea. No one thinks it remarkable that Fish and Game departments in almost the whole industrialized world maintain optimum population levels of so many species.

Before messing around with some undefined "free market approach" India needs to fix its' reserve system and that process seems to be underway. The World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy are helping by adding protected lands and equipment.

Human population growth is a big problem for the wildlife of India. As human growth pushes into wild places the size of habitats shrinks. Birth control of humans would go a long way toward protecting other species. But don't expect that to happen.

India has a higher population density than the United States. India has 1.08 billion people and 2.973 million sq km of land whereas the United States has 296 million people and 9.161 million sq km of land. So India has about 10 times the population density. of course they are going to wipe out species and as their population continues to grow more species are going to bite the dust.

The songs of experience and innocence on these pages.

As discussed with Joe earlier, referencing which reports:

>"The task force said India would have to work with China to stop huge
illegal trade in tiger body parts. Tiger organs, teeth, bones and penises are
used in traditional Chinese medicine."

Actually, I'm concluding that we've found the ideal use for cloning. Instead
of the S. Koreans producing the Seoul Afghan Hound (recent cloned puppy), why not, for profit,
"Tiger organs, teeth, bones and penises" for all those Chinese whose perceived
deficiencies are calling out for them? If you consider that valuable cow
embryos are implanted into rabbits to get them over the Canadia/US border without
paying duties, that amount of imagination could certainly farm tiger body parts
for what evidently is a considerable demand?

Tom V (#19)... just because you haven't bothered to research it doesn't make it mythical. Take a look at Nepal, for instance. It's not the only example I've seen by any means. Within this page alone, I rather liked this shrimp farming example that implemented the production as an ecosystem model we've talked about here (result: mangrove habitat enhancement, not just mitigation of damage) - and in the same vein, how about alligator ranching in Idaho? You know, I can remember when they were actually a threatened species.

Free market approaches to conservation are gaining steam in this area for precisely the same reasons it has made inroads elsewhere: because traditional liberal-left solutions are clearly failing. This doesn't render traditional approaches utterly useless, but it does suggest to most sensible people that perhaps there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

On which topic... The Philanthropy Foundation has a new guidebook out re: market-based environmentalism foundations et. al., and a broader overview can be found here.

Finally, Ruth (#22) may be on to something. It certainly beats pinning our hopes on asking for help from a Top 3 nation on all the global corruption reports, which happens to have a culture whose native medicine tells people tiger parts will help them feel better/ live longer, and for which people will therefore pay exorbitant sums and go to strenuous effort.

Yeah, that'll work.

And soon, we may need to leverage that alligator ranching expertise with crocodiles as well, thanks to blood properties that may have very real health benefits. Think of the scope of the HIV threat. Now consider where it's concentrated, and the kinds of belief systems and political systems prevalent in those areas. Throw in the inevitable crossover between science and folklore as word of this research leaks out. Finally, map to the range of many crocodiles.

The prediction isn't difficult. Depressing, yes, but not difficult.

I guess I'm disappointed by this kind of traditional gatekeeper/ "la la la I can't hear you" liberal-left stance when confronted by challenges to its orthodoxies. Challenges that note the fact that the interests and goals it claims to represent are not being given priority, and indeed are being sacrificed to its politics. Disappointed - but not surprised.

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