Saving Tigers (and Other Endangered Species)

Thom Lambert —  15 August 2006

Want to save endangered species? Turn them into private assets. So argues Barun Mitra in today’s NYT.

In Sell the Tiger to Save It, Mitra observes that our thirty year-old conservation policy, which prohibits harm to individual tigers and the trading of tiger products, has failed to increase the tiger population. The problem, Mitra argues, is that the prevailing prohibitionist approach fights markets rather than harnesses them:

[L]ike forests, animals are renewable resources. If you think of tigers as products, it becomes clear that demand provides opportunity, rather than posing a threat. For instance, there are perhaps 1.5 billion head of cattle and buffalo and 2 billion goats and sheep in the world today. These are among the most exploited of animals, yet they are not in danger of dying out; there is incentive, in these instances, for humans to conserve.

So it can be for the tiger. In pragmatic terms, this is an extremely valuable animal. Given the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicines, which make use of everything from tiger claws (to treat insomnia) to tiger fat (leprosy and rheumatism), and the prices this kind of harvesting can bring (as much as $20 for claws, and $20,000 for a skin), the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival. A single farmed specimen might fetch as much as $40,000; the retail value of all the tiger products might be three to five times that amount.

Yet for the last 30 or so years, the tiger has been priced at zero, while millions of dollars have been spent to protect it and prohibit trade that might in fact help save the species.

A property rights-based approach to conservation similarly offers greater protection for elephants, as Zimbabwe’s experience reveals. (See also here.)

Unfortunately, our own Endangered Species Act, which places severe development restrictions on any property providing habitat for listed species, turns endangered critters (and flora) into liabilities. The result is the regrettable “shoot, shovel, and shut-up” syndrome.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.