Last week, The Economist broke down the economics of protecting endangered animals. So, we drew inspiration from it and in today’s Finshots, we explore this in the Indian context.

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The Story

Last year, India embarked on a massive wildlife project. We reintroduced cheetahs. These big cats were officially declared extinct in the country in 1952. But we wanted them to roam our forests again. So we decided to relocate a few cheetahs. Now we couldn't do this with the Asiatic cheetahs of Iran since they numbered just a handful. Instead we chose the African species from Namibia. And we spent nearly ₹100 crores in the initial relocation efforts.

At the time, officials noted that this was an attempt to save our grasslands. Cheetahs can hunt down herbivores. And since herbivores in the region have been overgrazing rather routinely, this sounded like a good plan. The grasslands could flourish. Birds and other fauna could return. And the ecosystem could thrive.

But not everyone was happy about this. Especially after news of multiple cheetah deaths began to emerge. Their big question was — “Is this conservation attempt worth it? How do we know if the benefits outweigh the costs? Maybe we should be saving our vultures instead? (We’ll get to the vultures shortly)”

Anyway, conservation efforts are tricky because it’s not really easy to quantify the pros versus the cons. There are too many variables in the mix.

But economists Andrew Metrick and Martin Weitzman have tried to find a solution. And they used the Noah’s Ark Problem to explain it.

For the uninitiated, Noah is considered a Biblical hero who saved the world. The story goes that God decided to destroy mankind and he gave Noah a chance to save his family and the animal world. He would build a boat or an Ark and get on board a male and female specimen of all the world’s animal species. They would then replenish the new earth.

But here’s the thing. You can’t possibly have space on a boat for all animal species, no? Noah would have had to choose. There could only be limited pairs. And that’s the crux of the problem today — Which species do you save given limited budgets and resources?

So the solution begins with the expected utility of each species. And this utility shows up in the form of what they call ‘ecosystem services’. Just look at Indian vultures for instance.

During the early 1980s, we had 40 million vultures in the country. But by 2007, this number crashed by a whopping 99%. The sudden disappearance was shocking. For a long time, people scratched their heads wondering what on earth was going on.

But then, in 2004, the answer became clear — vultures were being poisoned.

Not intentionally, mind you. But accidentally. You see, farmers had resorted to using a common painkiller called diclofenac on injured cattle. The price of the drug had fallen sharply and it became easily accessible. And when cattle died and were disposed of, vultures fed on this. The diclofenac-laced carcasses were extremely toxic to vultures. It caused kidney failures. And they began to drop dead.

Now vultures make great scavengers. That’s the service they provide to the ecosystem. They can reduce a carcass to its bones and devour the carrion of an entire cow in 40 minutes. Most other scavenger animals can’t do it so efficiently. So as the vultures disappeared, rats and feral dogs took over the job. And the leftover carcasses were simply being dumped into nearby water bodies. No one thought twice about any of this.

But then, researchers found that there was an uptick in deaths in these areas. By over 4%.

Why did that happen, you ask?

It was attributed to the diseases that the newly scavenging feral dogs and rats passed on. And not to forget the water-borne diseases that came from dumped carcasses too.

Researchers even calculated the economic cost associated with this. They took into account something called the 'value of a statistical life' for all this annual deaths and came up with a whopping ₹5.7 lakh crores per year!

Insane, isn’t it?

And that brings us to the other half of Metrick and Weitzman’s theory — the cost-benefit analysis. Or do the gains from ecosystem services actually outweigh the cost of protecting the species?

For instance, just look at one of the biggest and most successful rewilding efforts in the world — the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US. While the efforts cost about $30 million, people flock to see the wolves. And this tourism alone brings in $35 million annually that helps the nearby communities. Not to forget how it basically rejuvenated the flora and fauna in the park too.

So can cheetahs at Kuno do what wolves at Yellowstone did?

Well, the case against cheetahs is that translocating a foreign species into India may not be successful. They’re not native to the land after all. Also, they don't have a lot of space to spread out and move around.

So some people argue that we’re throwing money away. And that we might better off putting the money into protecting species like the vultures. They’re native to the land and the economic benefits are clear.

But here's where such assumptions can get tricky.  

Just look at Africa. 20 years ago, the vultures had disappeared from the Liwonde National Park in Malawi. But after cheetahs were reintroduced to the park in 2017, the vultures came soaring back. Apparently, they came back to feast on the carcasses left behind after the big cats killed and ate their prey.

Would experts have predicted that would happen? We don’t know.

So maybe, if India’s cheetah programme does turn out to be successful, it could help protect the domestic vulture population too. That would help the ecosystem as well, wouldn’t it?

So yeah, while economists and researchers have found ways to put numbers and economic utility to conservation efforts, it may not always be black and white. And that means sometimes we might still have to ‘irrationally’ allocate resources to protect endangered species.

Until then…

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