In India, China and Russia, there were once 100,000 wild tigers. Today, only a few thousand survive.
They've disappeared because poachers kill them to sell crushed tiger bone, which is made into a paste that is supposed to kill pain.
The usual solution is to ban the sale of these products. Actor Harrison Ford says in a public-service announcement, "When the buying stops, the killing can, too. Case closed!"
But the case isn't closed. The ban is 33 years old, yet the tigers still disappear.
"If we continue the current approach, … the tiger is doomed," Terry Anderson of PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center (www.perc.org), told me for my ABC special "You Can't Even Talk About It" (http://tinyurl.com/rbjhwm).
Anderson points out that governments have repeatedly failed to save animals by banning their sale. They've failed with the Colobus monkey in West Africa, the alligator in China and now with the tiger in Asia.
How do we save them? Here's an idea. Let's sell them! And eat them!
A hundred years ago, American bison were almost extinct. Why? Because no one owned them and had the incentive to protect them. People just killed them.
Then ranchers began to fence in the bison and farm them. Today, America has half a million bison.
Does America have a shortage of chickens? No. Because we eat them. I realize this is counterintuitive. Expand animal populations by letting people consume them? The conventional thinking seems so much more sensible and sensitive.
But it's simpleminded. In Africa, rhinos were disappearing because poachers killed them for their horns, considered an aphrodisiac. African governments banned the products, but this did little good. A black market, complete with official corruption, arose. The government's game wardens took bribes or slept on the job.
"It was a complete failure," says Dr. Brian Child, who spent 20 years in Africa working to save endangered species. "Wildlife was disappearing everywhere."
What finally worked, he says, was letting landowners own rhinos so they could make money off them from tourism. Suddenly, each tribe had skin in the game, and an incentive to protect its own rhinos.
It's human nature. No government protects resources as effectively as you protect your own property. In Africa, says Anderson, those indifferent security guards suddenly became fierce protectors of their tribal rhinos.
He asked one: "What happens if you catch a poacher? You kill him? He said, 'No, we just beat them up. They go back to their village and don't ever come back.' These people don't tolerate poaching because they want to keep the animals alive. They allow hunting. They allow photography. That is the way to save wildlife."
In China, thousands of tigers survive only because some tiger farms protect them. Their owners hope that next year the Chinese government will lift its ban on tiger product sales. Then they can make money off the traditional medicines.
That would be terrible, American conservation groups say.
"There is no need to farm tigers," says Judy Mills, of Conservation International (www.conservation.org). "[A] survey that we did recently in China … showed that 90 percent of Chinese people actually support the ban."
It's nice that they said that, but half the people polled also said that they'd consumed products they thought contained tiger.
She conceded the point: "We know that Chinese people believe that having a bottle of tiger-bone wine in the cupboard is a nice thing to have around in case somebody has some aches and pains."
So what does it matter if they say they like the ban?
"Our method is working. But to a certain degree, it hasn't had a chance to work."
Please. Thirty-three years? How long can we wait? It's such a conceit for conservation groups to think a government decree can change thousands of years of culture.
What has worked is letting people own and profit from the sale of exotic animals. It's worked with elephants in Zimbabwe, rhinos in southern Africa and the bison in America.
Says Anderson, "If we make animals a marketable product, they will be saved."