Farming out the problem

A recent report that the Union ministry of environment and forests may be "exploring the possibility of allowing private persons to breed wild animals and extract medicinal products from them" has sent a ripple of discontent amongst the country's conservationists. The debate over the ethics and economics of use (of which farming is but one form), and its contribution to the conservation of wild species has been characterised more by rhetoric than reason in most parts of the world -- and India is no exception

 
By Kartik Shanker
Published: Sunday 31 August 2003

Farming out the problem

-- A recent report that the Union ministry of environment and forests may be "exploring the possibility of allowing private persons to breed wild animals and extract medicinal products from them" has sent a ripple of discontent amongst the country's conservationists. The debate over the ethics and economics of use (of which farming is but one form), and its contribution to the conservation of wild species has been characterised more by rhetoric than reason in most parts of the world -- and India is no exception. Given the struggle of current conservation paradigms, it is worthwhile to explore other possibilities. Farming is one such possibility. It has worked well in some cases (crocodiles and kangaroos in Australia) and not at all in others (crocodiles in China and Thailand).

Will farming of a particular species be economically viable? Opponents of the proposition maintain that it will always be cheaper to hunt wild species, for which essentially there is no maintenance cost to the user. However, there are many species with fairly low maintenance costs. Farming has many other advantages such as quality control, constancy of supply, quantity of supply, which put the farmer at an economic advantage. In fact, with captive stock in hand, the farmer will frequently be able to outcompete a wild product. Given the increase in global environmental awareness, there may even be greater demand for farm-labelled products. So, on economic considerations alone, one cannot argue against farming of wildlife. However, a more important consideration is that while farming may generate millions of dollars (as a certain tiger farm in Thailand apparently does), how does one ensure that this money is channelled back into the conservation of the wild population of the species. Ranching, for example, links the health of the wild population to commercial benefits and hence provides motivation and incentive to the user to ensure the survival of the species in the wild.

Second, who is to be the beneficiary of farming? If it is open to private businessmen (or say, multi-nationals), then the 'poacher' has no motivation to discontinue 'use' or 'poaching'. Benefits of farming must therefore go to those who are closest -- both geographically and culturally -- to the resource, and to those who would risk hunting wild populations illegally in order to improve their economic status. The economic question is tied closely to livelihoods, education and empowerment of local communities. Hence the question must be reframed as 'Would farming help conservation if local communities benefited from it, and were responsible for their own resource?'

Many conservationists in India are today opposed to wildlife use when its beneficiary is the poor local community. Their stand derives from a strongly protectionist philosophy. To be fair, protected areas are the reason for intact habitats and populations of many wild animals. However, with their focus principally on large mammals and their habitats, they are not and cannot be the sole method of conservation. And, the idea that humans must under all circumstances be separated from wildlife is a very elitist one. Why should local communities alone pay for for protecting the environment?

As biologists and conservationists, we need to be very careful while defining our stand on use and farming of wild animals. Our operating principle should be that the economic benefits of using species should be linked to the conservation of wild populations and their habitats. Suppose, as a compromise between positions, we recommend farming/use only in the following cases: when it benefits an economically deprived community; it leads to their economic and social empowerment, and better education (including environmental); the farming/use of the taxon is biologically/economically viable; general guidelines with regard to animal care can be followed; and the benefits can be used to improve conservation of the species in the wild. Would this or a similar set of caveats be an acceptable framework within which to use farming as a conservation tool? Obviously, what might work with some species, and in some areas, might not work for others because a diverse people would be involved. We should therefore be open to a variety of strategies, and use success as the ultimate measure.

Kartik Shanker is fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bangalore and editor, Kachhapa, a newsletter for sea turtle conservation in South Asia

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