The way to save tigers is to farm tigers
Conservationists seem happier to restrict the lives of poor people in India than find a solution that benefits both animals and humans.
The tiger has become something of a ‘poster child’ for conservation on a par with the polar bear and the whale in recent years. Not without reason – few animals capture the sense of the wonder and majesty of nature as the tiger does. So news that the tiger population is growing so rapidly in the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal, India, that the authorities are expanding the reserve’s size would seem to be a ‘good news’ story (1).
But hold it, tiger; it’s not all good news. Increasing the size of the park will mean further encroaching on the land of local people already suffering hardship from the creation of the park. In addition, conventional conservation is just not working; tiger numbers in India are still in decline. The park is doing nothing but managing that decline. If we care so much for these ‘charismatic creatures’ then more radical ideas are needed. We should not make locals pay the price for our love of the tiger.
In India, over three million people (know as ‘tribal people’ or adivasis) live inside the country’s 500 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries. It’s estimated that around 300,000 live in the 28 tiger reserves (2). As I discovered when researching the plight of 40,000 indigenous people in the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary in Gujarat, who found themselves trapped in a wildlife sanctuary designed for animals rather than people, they are often virtual prisoners (3).
Some of the most stringent wildlife laws anywhere in the world are to be found in India. It is little wonder that Western environmentalists often dream of having similar laws elsewhere. The Forest Department police who control these sanctuaries and reserves are armed and, empowered by the Wildlife Protection laws, are able to enforce enforce draconian restrictions in these protected areas. Indigenous people must not hunt, enter the sanctuary with weapons, or light fires without permission. They must not hurt or frighten wildlife, poach, damage trees, mine, collect forest produce, fish, trap animals, or clear land for cultivation.
Local people living on the edge of the Jim Corbett Park, already excluded from their land, are now threatened by the creation of an 18-mile-wide extension to the park. Not only will they lose land but they will also see further attacks on their livestock, already regularly killed by tigers and leopards. The creation of a tourist attraction is no replacement for the loss of land and livelihoods.
The imminent extinction of the tiger is a key shibboleth of wildlife conservation. In 1995, the International Union for Conservation of Nature claimed that tigers would be virtually extinct in the wild by 1999, ‘unless India and the other range states declare open war on poachers and illegal traders’ (4). The survival of the tiger has been the subject of countless conservation campaigns, public appeals and militarised anti-poaching activities. Indeed, such is their martial nature that in 1994, even the cuddly WWF used the following slogan in its recruitment campaign: ‘He’s destroying his own rainforest. To stop him do you send in the army or an anthropologist?’ Furthermore, tigers are protected by international law through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which provides for a total prohibition on hunting and trade in tiger parts (5).
Yet, India’s policy of isolating wildlife in reserves, curtailing human activity, and demanding further prohibitions on hunting and trade is simply not working. Numbers of wild tigers have declined markedly to less than 1,400 (6). Whether for food, fashion or medicine, demand for tigers and tiger parts has steadily increased rather than declined.
India should adopt the Chinese approach. Numbers of wild tigers in China have also declined but the numbers of tigers bred in captivity, in the 14 registered tiger farms, has increased (7). There are more than 5,000 tigers in captivity in China. Plans are underway to log the genetic profile of all the tigers held so that the numbers of pure subspecies can be documented and increased. This will aid the breeding of some of the rare subspecies such as the Bengal and Siberian tigers.
The cost of these centres is very high, and not helped by the 14-year ban on domestic and international trade in tigers, enforced by CITES. However, if the tigers were bred for the market, for their parts as well as for sale to zoos and circuses, then these enterprises would become self sufficient (8). It may also have the effect of undercutting the illegal trade in tiger parts by providing a steady supply to the market.
Tiger stir-fry and tiger-blood wine may not be on everyone’s menu. Most of us would not know what to do with a tiger penis if it flopped in front of us. However, the Chinese are already using some of the revenue from these farms to create new reserves for tigers in the unfamiliar setting of South Africa, and are planning the same for a designated reserve in China.
Maybe this free market will destroy the tiger of William Blake’s imagination. Its majesty as a predator and brutality as a killer is lost in circuses and zoos. And it will certainly not burn bright in tiger farms. Nevertheless, the commercial farming of tigers and captive breeding programmes should be taken seriously. As long as the poor live a hand-to-mouth existence based on subsistence agriculture, the priority should be to set aside land for people, not tigers. In the meantime, we need to find other ways to preserve these magnificent creatures.
We can romanticise the tiger if we wish, but we would be better off re-enchanting ourselves with our humanity. If we are so intent on saving the tiger then I’d propose farms for tigers and not prisons for indigenous people.
Kirk Leech is project manager for the Research Defence Society (RDS). He has written extensively on development and environmental issues and is currently undertaking postgraduate research at King’s College London.
Kirk Leech looked at the extinct arguments around species loss and argued that in Gujarat, India, a wildlife sanctuary had become a prison. And Brendan O’Neill asked who’s afraid of the ivory trade. Elsewhere, Helene Guldberg urged campaigners to stop weeping over whaling and Bernadette Gibson pointed out that aid agencies punish those they’re trying to help. Or read more at spiked issue India.
(1) Tigers Spill Out of One Indian Sanctuary, Planet Ark, 12 June 2008
(2) Too Many Tigers in One Indian Sanctuary, ABC News, 11 june 2008
(3) This sanctury is a prison, by Kirk Leech, 7 February 2001
(4) See IUCN Expects Tiger to be Virtually Extinct in Wild by 1999, Worldwide biodiversity/forest campaign news, 14 April 1995
(5) See the CITES website.
(6) Alarm as Indian tiger numbers fall to 1,400, Guardian, 14 Februay 2008
(7) Call to tame China’s tiger farms, BBC News, 14 June 2007
(8) The factory farm tigers being turned into wine, Daily Mail, 12 March 2007
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