Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Reason

why journalists who fancy themselves as economists should not write - this. (Free registration is required).

Right now, our wild animals are a wasted resource. Only private companies can unlock their true value by turning them into a dollar-earning tourist attraction. Wild animals flourish in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana because these nations treat their wildlife as an industry. They give land owners full property rights over the wild animals that roam on their land. The rights include hunting the animals and selling their meat, hides and horns. Thousands of privately owned ranches in these countries have switched to wildlife and safari tourism. They attract wealthy Americans and Europeans who pay $500-1,000 a day to go on photographic or hunting safaris, which typically last two to three weeks. So we have a paradox. These countries have booming wild animal population. But India’s wildlife diminishes even though shooting a partridge is a criminal offence. The paradox stems from a simple reason. Landowners of southern Africa protect their wildlife because they earn from it.

Right, so that's the crux of the argument - privatise the wild animals and the land that contains them. So if I own some land and wild animals are an attraction, I have an incentive to keep these animals alive. Brilliant - I have an incentive to keep, say, elephants alive so that I can earn from them when others want to shoot and kill them, I keep them alive so that they can later be killed! And this is apparently a successful and sustainable conservation model, so, once a few of my elephants have been killed and their tusks etc sold, I still have an incentive to invest in the breeding and nourishment of more elephants, so much so that the number of new jumbo babies I want will exceed the number of jumbos I sell or allow to be hunted and their overall numbers will increase. Can someone please tell me how a business model in which you procure more goods than you sell (and bear in mind that procurement here entails life-long maintenance and care, while sale involves a one-time payment) so as to keep increasing the overall number in your inventory is feasible? The reason these private efforts have worked very simple - hunting of protected animals is not allowed in wildlife reserves, whether they are private or public. Private landowners in Africa protect these animals from hunting not because they can hunted later, but because hunting of those animals that are considered endangered is banned. They make their money by tourist safaris, not by allowing hunting. So yes, the article is blatantly wrong with its facts. Hunting licenses are offered only for those animals that are not considered critical, and poaching is still quite common.

India’s tigers or elephants die because nobody owns them. Tragically, their killing is encouraged by their protectors—government forest guards who split the Rs2 lakh or so a poacher makes from killing a tiger. Official figures tell the story. Between 1999 and 2004, India saw the poaching of 53 tigers, three lions, 179 elephants and 23 rhinos. Other official figures say that despite this, a natural increase has raised the number of these animals. These numbers are suspect.

Brilliant again. So the official figures that support my case are correct, while those that contradict my case are suspect. Subjective and selective use of data is the oldest trick in the game.

After all, 24 tigers were reported to roam the Sariska game sanctuary in Rajasthan in 1997. But a recheck two years ago found that not a single tiger remained. Could the misreporting apply to other reserves? Perhaps yes. Tiger numbers are compiled by the very forest departments which connive with poachers. Depressingly, half of India’s tiger population of around 3,642 is found in India’s worst-governed states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. So, the longer wild animals are safeguarded by the Indian state, the closer they’ll get to extinction.

Once you have pronounced judgement - "the very forest departments that connive with poachers", why even bother substantiating your argument. If conniving with criminals is the be-all and end-all of government departments, there is no case whatsoever for the very existence of a government.

Nelson Mandela acknowledged that his poor HIV-stricken continent didn’t have the resources to save its priceless wildlife. Today, four of South Africa’s game reserves are run by Africa Parks, a private company owned by a Dutch conservationist. The experiment has been so successful that the company has been approached by several other African nations to run their game parks. Kenya has also given charge of one-third of its Masai Mara game reserve to a private management firm, Mara Conservancy.

Listen, these parks have been given to wildlife conservationists dammit, not to ranchers who allow hunting on these premises. They are private yes, but not private in the sense of 'come hold property and do what you like with it, find an incentive and conserve wildlife'. For a conservationist, conservation is an end in itself, not the by-product of a business incentive. Once the goal of conservation is considered paramount, the business incentives are created around it by the way of tourism.

Wildlife remains when it’s self-supporting. As an African saying goes, “If it pays, it stays.” Rhinos flourish in South Africa because South Africans buy, sell, breed and ship them as if they were racehorses. A white rhino there can sell for more than $30,000. Private lands in Zambia hold more big game than state-owned lands. Wildlife flourishes so much in the US that the state earned over $1 billion in 2000 from selling 15 million hunting licences and 30 million fishing licences to outdoor-loving Americans. Thanks to sustainable wildlife policies, the wolf and the bison have made such a comeback that their hunting is now allowed in America. Texas has some 500 hunting ranches stocked with all kinds of exotic species. Hunters pay $8,500 for killing one big animal. It’s very sad, virtually tame animals being shot by somebody who wants a trophy on a wall. But if that ‘hunting’ wasn’t allowed, nobody would even stock those animals.

Juvenile mix-up of cause and effect. The hunting of bisons has been allowed because they have made a comeback and are no longer endangered. The hunting is the effect of the comeback, not the cause of it. The "sustainable wildlife policies" that saved the bison included banning its killing. In any case, only those states have allowed bison-hunting where they have grown so much in numbers that culling is required to maintain a target population. Such culling happens in India as well, for eg. in the case of Nilgai in Gujarat. Those private parks in Botswana that hold big game do not allow them to be hunted. US hands out licenses for killing non-endangered animals and fishes, not for endangered animals. There are 11,000 remaining white rhinos in Africa, of which 5,000 are found in the Kruger National Park which is owned and managed by the SA government. As white rhinos are considered endangered and protected, the only sale that happens is between private individuals who already run and manage the private parks in Africa - which is to say that the sale and all is from one nature park to another, from one conservationist to another. Texas ranches do not have indigenous "exotic species" that are allowed to be hunted. Those exotics that are not protected have been brought in from outside the US (the Barasingha, for e.g) and the Us thus has no intention of conserving them in the first place. Of course, as a journalist, Mr. Kala is not required to concern himself with the details of the matter.

India’s wildlife vanishes also because the Indian state has no expertise in managing it. Maintaining a wildlife balance requires special knowledge. For example, one grown elephant eats 200 kg of vegetation a day and a herd can devastate an area. If the elephants rise in number, should they be culled, sterilized or relocated? Which IAS officer will know the answer?

Mr Kala has not heard of the Indian Forest Service apparently. A mere technicality, no doubt, in his mind. As of today the Indian government employs more than 1500 officers in the IFS and many more in the state services, who specialise in precisely this kind of knowledge. I know, my father is one of them. They (the IFS guys) also tend to know lots of other such things that are related, for e.g., what is the sustainabale ratio of blackbucks to predators in a conserved area, what is the correct canopy cover that has to be maintained in a dry deciduous forest that acts as the habitat of the Asiatic Lion (Gir), what is the sustainable amount of timber and non-timber forest produce that can be extracted from a wet deciduous forest without damaging it irreversibly, how to keep these figures under control while not upsetting the needs and demands and culture of the local tribal populace, how to manage and motivate the "corrupt forest guards" who sometimes find time away from "conniving with the poachers" to save the forests and often end up clashing physically with armed people from timber and veneer lobbies who do not mind flouting laws that have been framed to protect forests. (Of course, the free-marketeer in Mr Kala will argue that these honourable businessmen are driven to adopt such tactics only because of flawed policies, otherwise they'd be pure as babies feeding on breast milk.)

The entire article is a classic example of the way free-market fundamentalist journos approach any given situation. Some facts are collected, which are never verified, nor scrutinised for details. All the resultant conclusions then drawn by viewing these facts from the purpled prism of unrelenting ideology. Connected but different issues are mixed up. The government is pronounced as terrible at every given opportunity and lame pot-shots are taken at it.

Here, Mr Kala has mixed up the issues of privatization of conservation efforts, relaxing hunting laws, and distribution of public and private property w.r.t natural resources. The first point has some merit if argued well and needs to be explored, the second is superfluous and more of a concern to American conservatives - there isn't a demand for hunting in India, and the third has ramifications and implications far beyond wildlife conservation and deserves to be argued in detail elsewhere. He conveniently forgets or doesn't bother to find out, or glosses over the following details

1. Wildlife "flourishes" in Africa and US because they have a better base (more species, more number of animals) to begin with, and those species that have increased in numbers have been able to make a come-back because they were classified as endangered and hunting and trade in them was banned. In any case, he has provided no numbers to support his theory of flourish, for e.g., any figures before and after the privatization of those parks in Africa.

2. Nature Parks that are privatized in Africa have been given to conservationists, not just anyone. Those lands that already exist as private property allow hunting only in non-endangered and non-protected species. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 in India classifies the commonly found animals in India under various schedules, and lays down the guidelines of what trading or activity is allowed for what species. The tiger is a Schedule-I animal any hunting or trade in a tiger or tiger products are prohibited. Even if we were to adopt the private model based on the spurious examples that the article mentions, trading in tigers would still be illegal, the only point worth arguing would be if the private companies manage the conservation efforts better than the government. Such acts exist in all countries, including the US (Endangered Species Act, 1973) and all of Mr Kala's African examples. The success of wildlife conservation in Africa owes largely to the efforts of the local governments in tandem with teams of conservationists from all over the world. The forest department in India also regularly works in tandem with animal conservationists to chalk out strategies regarding relocation, culling, captive breeding, etc. to keep the wildlife "flourishing".

3. Mr Kala has not proved, apart from pointing out some recent tiger deaths, the pressing need for privatisation of either management or ownership of wildlife parks. India's tiger population is 3642 today, what was it earlier? How does the increase match up to other such conservation efforts elsewhere in the world? Gir has 327 lions now, it had 255 in 1990. (Of course, Mr Kala would say - these numbers are suspect, they are provided by the forest department themselves. Nevermind the fact that any wildlife census involves independent wildlife experts, how is one to bother over such piffling details) What species, Mr Kala, is on its path to extinction due to mismanagement by the big, bad Government of India? As far as preventing the tragedy of the commons is concerned, most forest departments are working out ways of developing eco-tourism, ala African safaris.

More generally, the ill-researched piece brings to light the reasons people with real day jobs tend to dismiss the views and opinions held by most freelance econo-journos (Sauvik Chakraverti of ToI comes to mind immediately). Loads of armchair theorising, a reluctance to get some real data and scrutinise it before forming opinions and passing judgements, the tendency to interpret facts so as to suit long-held theories rather than allowing one's ideologies to be moulded by facts, the tendency to make this-solution-will-end-all-woes kind of pronouncements, a ridiculous lack of awareness about the government and its bodies, and a compulsive desire to pronounce every single govt functionary as corrupt, conniving with the criminals. Mint claims to be fighting for the cause of "freedom", economic and social. It would do itself a great favour by ensuring its opinion pieces are tighter and less shallow. Of course, irrespective of whether they make sense or not, Amit will root for them.


Mayuresh Gaikwad said...

Dude, you are getting all worked up!

The guy's point is:
Initiate private players in the conservation game. They will be responsible because their money is at stake here. Details of the public-private partnership can always be worked out to ensure that incentives are geared towards tiger conservation.
As a start, here's one: "The partnership will end with no refund to the private player if the tiger population fails to become 1.25 times in the next five years, 1.5 times in the next 10 years and double in 15 years. (Again, exact numbers may be worked out by the IFS officers / wildlife experts as you mention it).

If the aim is tiger conservation, all the Govt. needs to be concerned about is the increase in the stock of wild tigers. Let the private player worry about how to make his investment work. Here's an idea I have always been toying with as a likely situation a private player would do on his "tiger ranch"(have also written it on the dictator's blog):

Catch wild tigers above 11 years of age (i.e. past their reproductive prime) and release them in a game reserve. Charge hunters USD 3,000 to hunt one of these tigers (for the thrill of hunting a tiger from the safety of a machan:-) )and another USD 5,000 for keeping the dead body.Use this money for conservation purposes.
(Charges can be worked out on a demand-supply basis; I suggest an auction; but that is another matter)

Rough calculations indicate:
Tiger population in the Indian wild: ~3,500
Let's say, a private player is to manage 500 of these on his/her ranch.
Approx. tigers turning 11 per year (30)
Revenues:- USD 240,000 per annum which is approx. INR one crore.

Use this revenue for the upkeep of the hunting reserve (can be a small piece of enclosed forest land, even 10 hectares is enough!) and for the maintenance of the tiger population.

Also earn money from other sources like the wildlife safaris, etc. (details can be worked out, just think of the idea currently)

I think it would be a good idea, as there are other game on the ranch too (such as all kinds of deer, boars, etc.). Auctioning them for hunting is an option too!

I have always wondered why we cannot do the same with the tiger population (& all other animal population) in our zoos. After-all, hunters are looking for trophies all the while, they would not mind killing an old animal!

Ideas will always sound crazy when they are first proposed, and you have played a good devil's advocate. But it would be useful to use specialized knowledge (maybe your dad could help here) to see if such an idea is workable in any scenario before dismissing it off.

zen babu said...


My article was a response to an old Mint article by some Arvind Kala, not the Jerry Rao one.

Commercialisation/ privatization of natural resources and wildlife is not a particularly new idea, and I do not oppose it a priori. However, the article I was opposing was a confusing mishmash of wrong facts and mixed up issues.

My post was a critique, not a construction. I really have neither expertise nor much knowledge about evaluating the workability of commercial conservation efforts - I did however know enough to point out that Mr Kala had gotten it all wrong.