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Can the free market save tigers from extinction?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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save tiger from extinction free market"How do we save [tigers] and other endangered species? Well, here’s an idea: Let’s eat them!" That was ABC reporter John Stossel on last Friday’s edition of the newsmagazine 20/20.

Is he serious? Maybe so. Stossel, well-known for his libertarian views and free market advocacy, argues that tigers are endangered because they have a monetary value to practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine. Stossel says laws and treaties against the sale of tiger parts create a black market economy that will eventually doom the tiger, and other endangered species like the rhino, to extinction.

So a market-based solution to tiger poaching, as described by interview subjects like Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Resource Center think tank, is to encourage farming of tigers and the legal sale of their parts, just as we do with cattle and chickens.

Conservation groups disagree. “It is inconceivable that profit and the bottom line was the only lens through which 20/20 approached the issue of tiger farming,” Grace Gabriel, Asia Regional Director of International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement.

Just 4,000 or so tigers are estimated to exist in the wild, down from a reported high of 100,000 a century ago. Besides the trafficking in tiger parts, human pressure on the animal’s natural habitats is a big problem.

“All our science and studies indicate that opening tiger trade and encouraging tiger farms is bad news for wild tigers and by extension, for people and the planet,” said Judy Mills, moderator of the International Tiger Coalition (ITC), in the same statement.

Tiger parts are still used in Chinese traditional medicine, and 20/20 found tiger products for sale in New York City’s Chinatown. But according to the ITC, demand for these products has declined steeply in the 16 years since China officially banned their sale.

Continuing the ban — and continuing to educate the public about the need to conserve tigers –would exert further downward pressure on demand. Plus, there are modern medical alternatives to tiger remedies for such conditions as arthritis.

Turning the economic tables on Stossel, we wonder if tiger farming would be cost-effective anyway. Raising tigers is expensive. They’re big, hungry, dangerous creatures, and they take years to mature. Poaching, by comparison, is cheap. According to the ITC, "poaching will always be too cost-competitive an option to ignore: consider the price of a bullet, trap or poison to kill a wild tiger against an estimated US$4,000 to US$10,000 to raise a farmed tiger to maturity."

Image: Caged tiger, courtesy the Save the Tiger Fund.

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  1. 1. drill4you 4:54 pm 05/12/2009

    the exploitation of our fello species for pure monitary gains is more than just revolting to me, it shows that as a species that claims to be created in gods’ image and above the other animal on this planet have few qualities which i would consider noble. "Man. The not so noble Animal"

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  2. 2. drill4you 4:57 pm 05/12/2009

    as the species on this plantet that considers it self created in gods image, i find it revolting with the wholesale slaughter for monetary gains of our fello species on this planet. There is nothing noble about "man. the noble animal."

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  3. 3. hotblack 5:58 pm 05/12/2009

    Perhaps we could engineer a flesh-eating bacteria that only feeds on human flesh, which lays dormant in tigers.

    That’d learn em.

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  4. 4. jack.123 10:49 pm 05/12/2009

    How about cheetah racing with Cheetos and others as sponsor’s,with 50% of the profits mandated for protection of the species.

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  5. 5. Shoshin 2:02 pm 05/13/2009

    An analogous situation occurred a few years ago in South Africa when SA knuckled under to pressure from international special interest groups.

    Private game ranch owners who raised lions for sport (yeah I know, not to crazy about this either, but I with held judgement until I heard the whole story) had large prides that they were caring for and building, releasing them onto their ranches which are many hundreds of thousands of acres. The animals ranged at will and fed on the herds of zebra, wildebeest etc that also lived on the ranch.

    Rich hunters would then pay to track and shoot one. Bear in mind that these ranches are so large it might as well have been in the wild; this was no caged or penned hunt. At up to $70K US for a mature lion, the lions were well worth the cost and expense of raising them. As long as there was no ban against export of lion products, the lions were a valuable commodity and well cared for.

    When the ban hit, the lions went from being an asset to being a liability and were destroyed. One ranch in particular had more lions than all of rest of South Africa combined.

    This also happened in Kenya(?) where some local US educated tribesmen managed to convince their fellow tribesmen to stop killing lions to protect their herds and instead protect the lions, again, so that rich hunters would pay huge $$ to shoot one. The tribesmen split the profits and the lions and tribesmen co-existed quite well.

    The program worked well until, again, international pressure stopped the export. As in SA, the lions went from being a well cared for asset to a liability and the slaughter began anew.

    Undoubtedly the special interest groups all slapped each other on the back claiming victory after their successful lobbying to ban export of lion products, and jetted home on some fresh cause, this one soon to be forgotten.

    But in effect, their actions signed the death warrant for many hundreds of lions and created exactly the type of situation they claim they sought to avoid.

    I fail to see how allowing the responsible harvest of a few old past their prime animals to ensure the survival and care of the rest is wrong.

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  6. 6. alochrye 3:15 pm 05/13/2009

    I find the so called "rationale" used by this man Stossel absolutely inane. To me it seems that at a particular dark time in our race’s history there would have been those who, using the same warped logic, would have claimed that since slavery was not "feasible" to be abolished we should clone humans and sell them as slaves to those who were willing to pay a premium for them. Now it sounds unthinkable, unethical, a violation of human rights? Maybe we need to question why we consider our rights sacred versus those of other living species on this planet.

    "Looking at nature from other species’ point of view is a cure for the disease of human self-importance." – Michael Pollan

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  7. 7. Roger Beattie 7:22 pm 06/24/2009

    I am a farmer & a conservationist, a unique beast.
    In the 1970′s I worked a little with the the New Zealand Wildlife Department helping save the Black Robin at the Chatham Islands, black robins had got down to five, now the numbers are over 100. The black robin recovery story is one of the great conservation success stories but it came at a huge cost to taxpayers.
    At the same time, I was working with the New Zealand Wildlife Department on eradicating Pitt Island Wild Sheep from a reserve on Pitt Island. There were about 5000 wild sheep when we started & I was involved in culling about 3000.
    Later the numbers were reduced down to a few hundred.
    Toward the end of the culling I was doing I thought these sheep are unique, they have attributes that should be saved.
    The upshot is that now I am organically farming 3000 of the 4000 remaining.
    These sheep could have died out if I had not started farming them.
    The options are: we either throw $millions at endangered species or we farm endangered species.
    The lesson is: no farmed species has ever died out.
    If New Zealand has lost 44 bird species since human occupation & our Iconic Kiwi is dropping in numbers by 6% per annum.
    At what point do we start farming them?
    The trouble is, those who are in control of outfits like CITES would rather species die out than have them saved by farming them!!!

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  8. 8. alochrye 1:55 am 06/25/2009

    In some ways, I agree with some of the suggestions made by people on this thread and in others I don’t. If my arguments however imply that I am in complete disagreement, I apologize for the choice of language.

    First things first. A farmed species is not the same as the species in its natural habitat. Period.

    The questions is of motive. Cultivation/ farming has a nasty undertone to it. It implies that the motive is profit. Preservation on the other hand is meant for the greater good. For the good of our natural habitat. Mind you, there is no purely altruistic reason behind it either. The biggest losers from the extinction of other species will not be the affected species, but us, the species that has driven them to extinction. As obvious as it might sound to a rational mind, this isn’t well-understood enough as far as most of us so-called sentient creatures go. We intend to save them because we perceive that we are in trouble if we go too far with our greed. We save them for our sake. Thus, we are not seeking profit here. We are trying to avert a catastrophe that will be caused by the obliteration of other species and their natural habitat. A catastrophe, that we know, we will not be prepared to face.

    Now comes the question of means to deal with this problem. There are several viable alternatives. Some claim that farming them works well. Well, if their numbers have dwindled to dangerously low levels, and farming them will help them reach decent numbers, then by all means “farm them”. But once their numbers have reached sustainable levels get out of the picture. Let the species thrive in its natural habitat. For only then will it truly be the real species.

    Preservation is not a business my dear friends. A farmer is not a conservator in every sense. If harvesting something implies trying to get a better harvest next year, and better still the year after, to feed a rising demand, this is pure business and not conservation. And letting such profiteers in, under the garb of conservators, is a cause for alarm. I won’t be surprised if there are several wolves in sheep’s clothing (no offense to the poor wolves or the sheep) who are looking at the lucrative potential businesses that can spring up by whetting people’s appetite for consumption of exotic meat. Tiger, rhino, alligator – you name it, and we will serve it, for the right price of course. In my opinion the harshest punishment should be meted out to such opportunists to deter them. Not everything has to be about profit in currency. We will all profit from the preservation of the natural habitat and species that are a part of it.

    Another lofty term : “responsible harvest”. Peculiar, because it has such a high moral ring to it and yet, can always be twisted to suit one’s purpose. To me, it’s equivalent to another term "responsible use of nuclear armament". The species in charge of this so-called responsibility does not have an impressive track record to boast off. I don’t think any one will buy into such a shaky promise. For what I think about the temr “harvest” please read the preceding paragraphs.

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  9. 9. andsilverainfell 8:47 pm 08/19/2009

    The point of conserving biodiversity and endangered species is that these creatures are separate from humanity. Wilderness is defined as being untouched by human hands. To farm such creatures would be to make them no longer natural and would defeat the purpose of protecting them as unique evolutionary lineages.

    Domestication brings both genetic and cultural consequences. Species would no longer be selected by nature and the potential to evolve naturally would be lost. Furthermore, we would not view these beasts as majestic, as their entire allure is that they are fierce, rare and nearly god-like to man. If they are found on farms, they have been tamed by man and are no longer enigmatic.

    I believe this is tragic to nature and humanity both.

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  10. 10. Colin den Ronden 9:59 pm 11/2/2009

    Maybe tigers could be genetically modified to produce pygmy versions the same or smaller size as domestic cats, then we could breed them as manageable pets.

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