A cost benefit analysis of saving the tiger

Indian Express, 25 August 2005

Will adivasis in Project Tiger reserves be denied employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act? If not, what will the public works programmes mean for the tiger?

Following Indian express reports that tigers had disappeared from Sariska, a task force was set up to recommend ways to save the tiger in India. The findings of the Tiger task force indicate that one of the most serious problems in protecting the tiger has been the continued habitations of humans inside tiger reserves. It estimates that around Rs 10,000 crore will be needed for reloaction of the villages in these reserves. Should India be spending this money to protect tigers?

q: Why is the tiger important?

a: The tiger is beautiful, and a magnet which draws us out of our homes to visit forests and experience nature. But more importantly, saving the tiger is a precious goal because it involves saving the entire ecosystem. The tiger is the apex predator. If the tiger has to survive, the entire forest has to be healthy. Hence, focusing on the tiger actually achieves much more than merely ensuring the survival of one species. This was the insight of Project Tiger, which has sought to preserve the ecosystem at 23 locations in India, adding up to 33,000 square kilometres or 1% of India's area (see http://projecttiger.nic.in/map.htm). The total forest cover in India is estimated to be 19.27 % of India's geographic area.

q: Project Tiger was launched in 1973. What changed to put the tiger back into trouble?

a: A decisive factor that appears to have changed is the black market price of a dead tiger. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that tiger bones have pharmaceutical value. China's per capita GDP has gone up sharply and the rise in China's prosperity has spelt doom for the tiger, by driving up the black market price of tiger corpses. In addition, the lack of focus on law and order in the Indian State has led to greater crime in wildlife sanctuaries.

In around 2040, India's population will start declining, thus reducing pressure on land. If India is able to execute economic reforms, India's income will rise dramatically in coming years. It is possible to envision extraordinary benefits from biodiversity, ranging from tourism to research, in the years to come in the context of a prosperous India with a declining population. The puzzle that we face is that of saving enough species over this most-dangerous period of 2005-2040. Putting aside 1-2% of India's area for this purpose appears to be a small price to pay.

q: Where do adivasis come into the debate?

a: The tiger districts are mostly among the 150 most backward districts in the country. These are mainly occupied by adivasis. The adivasis often live in the forest - including inside Project Tiger wildlife sanctuaries. Their skills as hunters are often used by poachers for illegal killing of tigers.

q: Can adivasis and tigers coexist?

a: The critical question that has to be asked is: What kind of life do we envisage for adivasis? Some armchair intellectuals have a romantic notion about traditional people leading an unspoilt life, living like animals. But the reality is that advisis are often extremely poora and cannot resist a payment of Rs.10,000 for a tiger corpse. There are always unscrupulous criminals who take advantage of their extreme poverty and their knowledge of the jungle.

The tiger is a litmus test of romantic dreams about traditional peoples. If adivasis were more like animals living in peace in the jungle, the question of them participating in the tiger parts trade would not arise. But it does because adivasis respond to incentives, just like you or I.

Adivasis are citizens, and poorer than most. Denying them public services such as innoculation and primary health and education facilities that other cilitzens enjoy would be inhuman. To deny them employment under the Employment Guarantee Act would also be illegal.

q: What is the way out?

a: There are two decisions that we face, which need to be decoupled. First, India has to choose how much land must be given over in wildlife sanctuaries, for the purpose of biodiversity. This land must be completely free of human exploitation (e.g. see http://www.indianjungles.com/070805.htm). The fate of the tiger in India shows that coexistence has not worked. There are too many opportunities and temptations for adivasis to kill tigers. And, the task of law enforcement becomes dramatically harder when the police have to deal with villages inside the forest. If the forests are free of human inhabitation, it will become easier to enforce laws on poaching. A lot more money needs to be spent on law and order in the context of this land.

India has to separately choose how much land must be given over in "adivasi sanctuaries", in order to perpetuate their traditional lifestyles. For example, India could choose to have 1-2% of our land area for preservation of biodiversity, and an additional 1-2 % of land for preservation of traditional peoples. But we must recognise that the two goals cannot be achieved by the same land.

q: How much would it cost to relocate all adivasis from all Project Tiger reserves, thus putting aside 1-2% of India for the purpose of protecting biodiversity for future generations?

a: Based on estimates of tribal families in reserves and the compensation required about Rs 10,000 crore may be needed. (see http://projecttiger.nic.in/TTF2005/pdf/3ahead.pdf)

q: Is Rs.10,000 crore not better spent on constructing roads that would generate commerce?

a: Suppose we attach zero importance to biodiversity as an end in itself, and only focus on money. In this case, we have to envision the increased tourism revenues with vibrant tiger populations, versus the reduced tourism revenues when the tiger becomes extinct. Nobody can know these numbers exactly, but simple calculations suggest that if India manages to stay on course with sound economic growth, the tourism revenues over the next 50 years easily yield a net present value which is much greater than Rs.10,000 crore. It makes business sense for India to spend Rs.10,000 crore on relocating adivasis, even if we attach no value to biodiversity other than as a tool for obtaining tourist revenues.

Another aspect of this is that the resettlement cost will grow in the future, reflecting rising wages and asset prices in India. Ideally, the government should have bitten the bullet and done this in 1973, when Project Tiger was created - it would have been dramatically cheaper then. We should recognise the mistake, and not put off relocation further.

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