Even though natural ecosystems can provide us with many services, a very limited effort has been made to actually integrate these ecosystem services into conservation planning. This one of a kind study tries value ecosystem services generated by Tiger Reserves in India.
Reference: Verma, M., Negandhi, D., Khanna, C., Edgaonkar, A., David, A., Kadekodi, G., Costanza, R., Gopal, R., Bonal, B.S., Yadav, S.P. and Kumar, S. (2017). Making the hidden visible: Economic valuation of tiger reserves in India. Ecosystem Services, 26, 236-244. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.05.006
The biggest of all the world’s cats, the Tiger, is not just a symbol of power and beauty, but it also represents a healthy ecosystem. This powerful and charismatic big cat used to roam across 30 countries but now has been restricted to just 13, thanks to indiscriminate habitat fragmentation and poaching. More than half of the ones left in the wild live in India. As part of its effort to save these, India has formed about 50 Tiger Reserves all over the country, which cover about 2% of its geographical area. Like in many countries, people in India also rely heavily on the “ecosystem services” provided by nature, like firewood, water and medicinal plants and derive a significant percentage of their income from them. By declaring these natural ecosystems as protected areas, people can lose their source of income and often turn hostile towards conservation. Though the establishment of protected areas (PAs) forms the core strategy of biodiversity conservation, it can be difficult to justify the economic and developmental costs involved to people who may lose their source of income and decision-makers.
How can ecosystem services approach help in conservation?
Ecosystem service assessment is fast becoming quite popular in conservation. It provides innovative ways to promote and finance conservation efforts, where the incentives to conserve a natural ecosystem are higher than the costs borne by the people. It encourages equitable sharing of benefits to the marginalised stakeholders like local communities, which bear the maximum costs, yet receives the least benefits of conservation. To get the most out of ecosystem services, an ecosystem has to be “healthy”, which includes high biodiversity. Biodiversity contributes at genetic, species, population and ecosystem levels in maintaining the ecosystem functions and services. Hence, the concept of valuing ecosystem services provides a practical rationale for biodiversity conservation in support of traditional justification that relies on the intrinsic value of biodiversity.
By economically valuing the stock (potential supply) and the flow (real supply) of these services, the contribution of biodiversity to the human well being can be highlighted, which is usually overlooked or hidden in traditional economic accounting. This one of a kind study by Verma et al. 2017 in India has tried to do the same in which the team valued ecosystem services in 6 Tiger Reserves of India. Let’s see what they found but before that…
What makes these Tiger Reserves special?
Tigers being apex predators, their presence in an ecosystem indicates towards a well-functioning and balanced food chain. As Tigers require a large area of contiguous forest cover for home and a good prey base for survival, by protecting them we can also ensure the protection of other species. That is why they are also called as “umbrella” species. For India, they are a flagship species and hence, enjoy a lot of conservation attention. Tigers also have a high social and cultural value, attracting visitors from all over the world. A recent boom in wildlife tourism has led to an increased interest in tiger conservation. These Tiger Reserves not only provide a safe haven for these tigers and other wildlife but also provide a wide range of ecosystem services as listed in the paper, which is utilised at multiple scales and by multiple stakeholders.
Major Findings: Are Tiger Reserves worth the cost of keeping?
Of the 50 tiger reserves, the team selected 6 representative tiger reserves from different landscapes and relevant ecosystem services for each were separately identified. In total, 25 ecosystem services representing all four categories according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) like agriculture, fuel wood, fodder, water, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, pollination, recreation etc. were economically valued. Their findings indicate that while benefits ranging from US$ 128 million to US$ 271 million can be attributed to these tiger reserves annually, the stock value protected by them is in the range of US$ 344 million to US$ 10.08 billion. It was observed that many of these benefits are delivered less at the local level in comparison with that at the national and global level, which is frequently observed and reflected by the attitudes of the local communities. A large proportion of these benefits are intangible and have no market, which is why their contribution to economy goes ignored. Tiger reserves were found to be a win-win option as the ratio of benefits to the investment made for managing these protected areas were found to be between 200 to 530, which means it makes sense to invest in the management of these reserves, as the benefits are much more than the management cost.
But is this value justified?
The use of indirect methods with limited primary data does raise a lot of eyebrows on the accuracy and credibility of the values estimated by the study but for the team finding primary data was the biggest challenge. Nonetheless, these values should be seen as estimates meant to substantiate these Tiger Reserves as a way to achieve both biodiversity conservation and human well being. Taking a cue from successful case studies from around the globe, a more equitable sharing of benefits should be ensured as part of conservation practices so that the local communities get their deserved share. This is not happening currently, however, wildlife tourism and REDD+ payments for carbon storage prove to be some potential tools that could be used to involve these local communities and garner their greater support for conservation.