A spotted deer somewhere in Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh senses a movement behind the bushes. Instinct suggests it could be a tiger. The deer sprints away in alarm.
Its fear was unfounded. For the past several months, there has been no tiger in Panna. Years of incessant poaching has ensured that. News reports said 45 tigers have been killed in the country in 2009 alone, taking the toll beyond 100 in the last three years. With fewer than 1,500 tigers left in the wild and no letup in poaching, the species is dangerously close to extinction. Lions, rhinoceros and a number of other animals are doing no better.
The jokers in the pack, of course, are the wildlife authorities. Forestry and wildlife conservation in India are run like a sick public sector unit. The problems are the same. Lack of resources or leadership, inadequate and inefficient staffing, bureaucracy, corruption and official apathy. “The official agencies that are meant to protect our wild habitats are ill-equipped and not trained with latest techniques of anti-poaching as well as habitat management,” says Nirmal Kulkarni, an ecologist based in Goa.
So, what if India’s wild is privatised just like the government would do in the case of a badly run, loss-making PSU? To many, this might evoke the image of greedy, manipulative businessmen who butcher animals and plunder the forests. But plundering and poaching already thrive under the government’s watch. Privatisation can be more responsible and regulated.
Actually, privatisation of forests is nothing new. A host of countries including South Africa, Australia, Canada and Bulgaria have done so. Their objective was to exploit resources such as timber, fish and even animals in some case. India’s objective should be conservation.
The starting point for the government must be to corporatise the jungles. That is, each national reserve should be brought under the structure of a government-owned company, which will lease the forests to private firms for fixed periods.
The government must create environmentally sustainable revenue streams from the jungles to make the enterprise profitable. Obviously, jungle tourism will play a big part here. The fringes could also be used to produce cash crops. In addition, the forests could be used for producing renewable energy through wind and solar sources.
The private companies will have to protect the flora and fauna. The government enterprise holding the forests would rake in all the revenue and give a share to the private parties based on an “animal bank” or “biodiversity bank”. The same forest could be privatised to different parties, by parcelling rights such as tourism, cultivation and energy separately.
In fact, privatisation of the wild is supported the world over by Libertarian politicians. They even support farming of tigers. The US Libertarian Party Web site asserts that in Zimbabwe, where private ownership of elephants is allowed, their number increased from 30,000 to 43,000 between 1979 and 1989.
Private companies will bring in the capital required to fence forests, replace old, weak-legged guards with a proper wildlife security force, do reliable audits of animals, tackle spread of diseases and boost tourism revenue for the country.
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(This story appears in the 31 July, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)