Wildlife & Biodiversity

Should conservation be privatised?

Since the late 1960s, many African countries, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, have adopted a new approach to conservation. They granted legal rights on wildlife to people who own land where the animals are found. Recently, a paper, written by an Australian professor, George Wilson, in Conservation Letters has sparked off a controversy as it said that such practices have helped revive the populations of endangered wild animals. However, this approach is contrary to global conservation practices, including in India, where the government is the key player in managing and regulating wildlife. Rajat Ghai speaks to experts on whether conservation in India should be privatised?

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 09 May 2017

"Private players will only look for profits"

Rajesh Gopal, Secretary, Global Tiger Forum (GTF), New Delhi

A PRIVATE entrepreneur in India is hardly in a position to venture into conservation, leave alone conserving endangered species. A private operator, unless a philanthropist, will have to look for gains from his investment, and the easiest option for such people would be to jump into the much-distorted (yet fancifully popular) bandwagon of “ecotourism”, with a clear-cut agenda for carrying out commercial tourism with the host community. It is rather unfortunate that this is being suggested as a panacea for wildlife conservation. This would benefit neither the endangered species nor the local people. Our protected areas are not competing destinations for large African safaris. Conservation ventures for endangered species should benefit locals in an ecologically-sustainable manner, which is crucial for gene porosity in the landscape beyond the portals of a protected area. A private entrepreneur will not be in a position to visualise the compelling needs of addressing issues relating to wildlife at a larger landscape scale, which is crucial, especially addressing human-wildlife conflicts warranting coordination with district level law enforcement agencies. Hence, the behemoth of privatisation of such sensitive subjects which provide several ecosystem services to society apart from locking up carbon should never be entertained. Rather, the need of the hour is to co-opt private entrepreneurs in meaningful models beyond protected areas.

"Restructure and privatise wisely"

Dereck Joubert, Award-winning wildlife filmmaker and conservationist, Botswana

Secluding some areas to external management is a good portfolio diversity management. I see conservation as a partnership between commerce (tourism), communities (land owners and skill suppliers), and the government (often, a benign overseer). Without a fine balance between these three, any one stakeholder can take a wrong direction which will harm conservation. For example, when commerce and communities have a free reign, it is possible that they take a commercial route—farming for example—which will lead to a collapse in conservation. Hence, a government overview is important.

If I were to advise the design of private partnerships in India, it would be to restructure and place core areas under government protection; surrounding areas with public access, where revenues would go to communities or the state government; and, to establish “ideal corridor systems” for key iconic wildlife species that can be privately-held or leased and managed in a way that can generate value, jobs, skills and foreign income. These corridors will also serve as buffers. But to make these viable, they must be made exclusive. The privately-operated concessions should be responsible for taking care of conservation in vital corridors.
"Use eco penalties to fund conservation"

N G Jayasimha, Lawyer and managing director, Humane Society International/India, Hyderabad

Most of the larger terrestrial endangered species live only on government-owned land in forests and protected areas. These conservation activities need huge investments, such as in law enforcement, conflict mitigation, habitat consolidation, village relocation and research and monitoring. None of these activities generate “profits”. So why would private parties get involved in them?

However, if environmental penalties and offsets charged on industry for industrial activities such as mining, highways and energy projects can be specifically directed to acquire or consolidate critical habitats, then it could be called some sort of privatisation, I suppose.

As far as “for profit” privatisation is concerned, only the wildlife tourism sector offers some scope. But that is a peripheral activity, rather than central to species recovery. However, if farmers next to protected areas, who now see only damage and no profits from the presence of endangered species, can change land use cooperatively to have wildlife on their lands as well as earn money from tourism, it would be helpful indeed. Same is the case of community-owned tribal lands in northeast India, where all wildlife has been hunted out. There is room for visionaries for private players to venture into such opportunities, but I see no evidence of long-term vision in this sector.
"It'll absolve government of its role"

B C Choudhary, Former professor, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun

While privatisation of conservation has its obvious advantages, the downsides far outweigh them. Privatising conservation absolves the designated government entities or the custodians of wildlife of all responsibilities of protection of the said species, which then renders them redundant. Any private entity that tries to sustain conservation efforts relies on a revenue generating model to make it sustainable. This is either done through large grants from funding agencies or through “eco- tourism”. With both of these being heavily result-oriented, the ethics of conservation is often pushed to the limit, especially with tourism.

If conservation of an endangered species like the tiger is privatised, this would push several large tourism companies to essentially “buy” the conservation rights of the tiger with obvious vested interest which, in turn, would be detrimental to conservation, especially given the fact that our country severely lacks policies and enforcement of policies that regulate tourism activities in wildlife habitats.

With an already existing lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of governmental agencies, privatisation of conservation of endangered species would further make things murky. It would also raise questions such as who would be responsible for conflict resolution, payment of compensation for the conflicts, and very simply, who owns wildlife?
"No visionaries in the private sector"

K Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bengaluru

Conservation of endangered species involves arresting their population and range declines. The next step is to recover their numbers and re-establish range.

However, most endangered species survive only on government forests and protected areas. Their conservation needs large investments for law enforcement, conflict mitigation, habitat consolidation, village relocation and monitoring. None of these activities generates “profits”. So why would “for profit entities” or private parties get involved in them at all?

As far as the “for profit” kind of privatisation is concerned, only wildlife tourism sector offers some scope to assist species recovery. If we can enable farmers staying near protected areas—who now see only damage—earn more profits from wildlife tourism from their own lands, that would indeed be helpful.

Same is the case of community-owned tribal lands in Northeast India, where all wildlife has been hunted out. Room exists for visionaries in the private sector to venture into such opportunities, but I see no evidence of such vision in the private sector to engage with land owners.
"Wildlife is for everybody"

Prerna Singh Bindra, Former member, National Board for Wildlife, New Delhi

I don't agree conservation of endangered species should be privatised. Wildlife is our natural heritage. It belongs to everyone and to no one. Its “ownership” cannot be restricted to a state, country, let alone a private entity. It belongs to the earth, it is a global heritage. It is only held “in trust” by the government, which is entrusted with its conservation and well-being.

So how will this privatisation model work? Private companies usually look at the profit motive. So, how do we ensure that their priority and focus is conservation and not the larger profit motive? Handing over wildlife habitats, sanctuaries and forests to private companies is fraught with risks. The lands which wildlife inhabit is mineral-rich, which private players can exploit in the guise of conservation. Land has too many competitive uses, so it must not be handed over to a privileged few.

The government needs to get its act together as far as protection of species is concerned, as conservation has slipped from its priorities. We need to involve stakeholders in conservation, but not to priviatise or handover the ownership of wildlife and its last remaining habitats.

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