Managing Natural Assets

‘Just another reprint from The Tiger Center for-discussion series, circa 2009 ( I chair the center, take part in intellectual debate (boy, can we debate!), and the author is our Managing Director.

by Prof. Nishi Mukerji

The discussion piece, below, will probably (certainly) ruffle some feathers, but what’s said here needs to be said, and we welcome your response! It has to do with India’s progress with tiger conservation over the past 40 years, as well as the need for a new paradigm — one based on managing our natural assets as economic assets — properly cared for, and properly employed. It has to do with the most productive paradigm we can envision — one which brings together — in synergy — tigers, environment, and people.

Albert Einstein, once said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” He went on to add, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

In 1972 when Mrs. Indira Gandhi started “Project Tiger,” there were about 1500 tigers in the wild in India. After almost forty years, after thousands of crores of rupees have been spent, huge government departments have been created, and many “brilliant” officers have earned their Phd’s and what not, we are back to 1500 tigers — No! less! Obviously, something in the tired old paradigms is not working and it would be “insanit” to persist with them. We see nothing new, it is the same old people saying the same old things, and showing the same lack of results for the last four decades.

Conservation must become part of a developmental paradigm, which includes both the economic well being of people and the health of the environment. So, Conservation, the Economy, and the Environment, can be envisaged as three points in a “Golden Tirangle.”

A comparative assessment of the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Vidarbha Tiger Region (VTR) in Central India, with its center in Nagpur, is revealing. Nagpur can, in fact, be considered the “Tiger Capital” of the world. There is no other city anywhere with an international airport, which has so many notified tiger parks in its proximity. The knowledge, skills, and attitudes in the VTR in all probably is reflective of the culture of conservation prevailing in the the country.

The Kruger National Park, which is powerfully marketed, is spread over 19,455 sq. km, and is home to vast variety of flora and fauna. It hosts approximately 400,000 visitors every year. Even a “back of the envelope” calculation, assuming that a visitor stays for a week and spends approximately USD 500 per day, will show that the park earns USD 1.4 billion for the country. Visitors are welcomed, educated, and entertained by the management, and the people within the park are fiercely protective of the animals, since they see them as the source of their livelihood.

No conservation efforts will succeed unless people living within and juxtaposed to the wildlife areas become the sturdiest protectors of the flora and fauna. And this will not happen unless they see their own livelihood being benefited by the existence of the flora and fauna.

Vidarbha, as in other parts of Central India, is blessed with wildlife. It is, of course, not marketed at all, even though its forest area is spread over 37,251 sq. km — twice the size of the Kruger National Park! Since it is not marketed, the number of visitors is an infinitesimal proportion of its potential, and far from educating and entertaining visitors, the very purpose of the management seems to be to deter the visitor from having a memorable experience. You just have to visit some parks in Vidarbha and MP to witness the truth of this reality. This is not to take away anything from the many people on the ground who work sincerely.

Far from earning USD 1.4 billion, the only elements who make any returns from the parks are poachers and smugglers and the corrupt who collude with them. The management continues to demonize the wildlife visitor as being the main threat to conservation: How many tigers have been killed by tourists? And is it not true that poaching increases when the tourist season finishes, and tourists are not in the park! Steeped as it is in the “command and control culture” left behind by the Raj, the management is busy entertaining VIP’s — it used to be viceroys — instead of implementing a viable conservation model.

So where do we go from here? It is important to move ahead with Vision and Leadership, for without that, the tiger will perish.

First, we must take a leaf out of the book of Dr. Man Mohan Singh and implement the suggestion that the Tiger parks should become “Profit Centers.” The management must be responsible not only for Conservation and Research, but also for the Economic Returns from the parks. This will ensure that they do not remain non-performing assets (NPA’s), but become performing ones, like the Kruger Park.

To facilitate the above, two other policy prescriptions should be implemented. Wild Life Tourism (the fastest growing segment of the huge tourism industry) should be brought within the ambit of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and taken out of the Ministry of Tourism. The management of the parks are not trained to manage economic assets, and this educational input must be put into their learning syllabus, and become part of their intellectual equipment. This re-education parameter is of primary importance. Show me an organization’s educational system, and I will show you the organizations future!

Very obviously, the new realities being created by the implementation of these policy prescriptions, will require the creation of infrastructure, both material and human. This will create tremendous opportunities for employment, education and wealth creation, and an entire economy can be built around the tiger being a center-piece of a developmental paradigm.

Finally there must be powerful marketing of India’s wild places. India is a wildlife super-power, and it is sad to see that its wild life assets are languishing. If South Africa (Kruger), Kenya, Nigeria, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, USA, South America, etc. can create demand and sustenance for their wildlife assets, wither India?

In sum therefore, the tired old paradigms being touted for the last forty years have failed. Conservation must be one of the points in a golden triangle that includes the economy and the environment. This will require structural and strategic changes, to be understood and implemented. This includes the creation of profit centers, infrastructure, and re-education, as well as structural re-alignment of the wildlife visitor segment within the ambit of the Ministry Of Environment and Forests. Finally, it requires powerful and professional marketing of India’s wild life assets to let the light shine on the tiger, and keep it “burning bright.”