NEW DELHI: Comparing tigers and Mangalyaan may seem bizarre but a new bio-economic analysis throws up interesting statistics -- saving two big cats gives more value than the cost of India's much-hyped maiden mission to Mars.
In a one-of-its-kind analysis, an Indo-Australian team of scientists has published a paper titled 'Making the hidden visible: Economic valuation of tiger reserves in India' in the journal Ecosystem Services.
It says saving two tigers yields a capital benefit of about Rs 520 crore; in comparison ISRO's maiden mission to mars Mangalyaan cost the country Rs 450 crore.
According to the last estimate, India is home to 2,226 adult tigers which would mean a capital benefit of about Rs 5.7 lakh crore -- almost equivalent to a third of the total currency that was demonetised by the government!
So conservationists say saving tigers makes good economic sense!
This is when many of the ecosystem benefits accruing to the society by conserving natural habitats where tiger is the apex species simply cannot be assigned any monetary value.
Even then, the benefits of saving tigers throws up a huge number.
The scientists looked at six tiger reserves and estimated that conserving them was equivalent of keeping a secure capital of USD 230 billion which they call 'stock benefits' of these tiger reserves.
The 11-member team says estimating monetary values of ecosystem services from biodiversity can help in making conservation more appealing and benefits from biodiversity more visible to policy makers.
The team led by Professor Madhu Verma from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, says tiger reserves in India not only support more than half of the global tiger population and are cornerstones of biodiversity conservation, they also provide a wide range of economic, social and cultural benefits in the form of ecosystem services.
"Ignorance of such values influences public policies, including decisions involving investments and allocation of funding that may impact their protection status with serious implications on human wellbeing. Through economic valuation of ecosystem services from six tiger reserves in India, we demonstrate that enhanced investment in these tiger reserves is economically rational," he says.
The team analysed the economic benefits accruing to the country from Corbett Tiger Reserve that is home to 215 tigers, Kanha Reserve (80 tigers), Kaziranga (106), Periyar Reserve (35), Ranthambore (46), and the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (76).
The tiger estimates are all from 2014 when the National Tiger Conservation Authority gave its last countrywide census figures.
A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that each tiger has a flow benefit of about USD 2.19 million per year.
This can be viewed as the interest one earns annually by conserving each tiger. Towards this, the total annual expenditure to maintain these six tiger reserves was just about Rs 23 crore.
A very crass economic cost benefit analysis suggests that the return on investment for saving each tiger is of the order 356 times the investment.
No industry or service can boast of such a high rate of return.
"This new way of green accounting is seldom considered by traditional economists," says Rajesh Gopal, former head of Project Tiger and currently Secretary-General of the Global Tiger Forum in New Delhi.
India is currently home to 60 per cent of the world's tigers and through the establishment of 50 tiger reserves, the numbers of adult tigers living in the wild has been steadily increasing from a low of 1,411 tigers in 2006 to reaching a peak of 2,226 in 2015 when the last estimate was made.
The next countrywide census will be carried out in 2018.
Making a case for increased investments for tiger conservation, Gopal says, "In the last 35 years of tiger conservation in India, the government has spent close to Rs 1,200 crore or about USD 180 million and the simple stock benefits from the six tiger reserves that have been analysed comes to USD 23,056 million per year."
This is an eye opener.
Today, 2.3 per cent of the geographical area of the country is covered under protected tiger reserves and to drive home his point of economic benefits Gopal says some 300 small and big rivers originate from the protected forests, whose downstream benefits are invaluable.
Gopal, who is a co-author of this unique study, says "estimating the anthropocentric benefits of a natural ecosystem is almost impossible as there are many-many intangible benefits".
To expand the same, Verma adds, "We still do not have adequate information or understanding about ecosystems, all the species, and the various ways in which these enhance human well-being that we can objectively estimate a value for each of them.
"There are also ethical issues inherent in the process, the intrinsic value i.e., the value of wild species in their own right."
"However", he says "recognition of even a conservative estimate of some of these intangible benefits from tiger reserves is likely to demonstrate their significance and provide adequate justification for conservation of these tiger habitats. The underlying objective of the initiative was to make the hidden benefits emanating from and embedded in tiger reserves visible to economies and society."
Tiger conservationists point out that the rice plant that saved India from near starvation in the last century was a variety called IR-8. This high-yielding rice variety was bred using wild rice plants collected from the tiger habitats now part of Chhattisgarh.
"The tiger is an umbrella species under whose shadow millions of other organisms are being saved," says Gopal.
He says one of the objectives of establishing Project Tiger was "to ensure continuity of natural evolutionary processes".
Now green accounting is giving conservation a whole new dimension for conserving tigers.
"The need of the hour is green planning," asserts Gopal.