"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.