The Indonesian government has hatched a plan to save Sumatran tigers from extinction by allowing people to adopt captive-born animals as pets for 100,000 dollars a pair, officials said.
The forestry ministry said the plan could be put into practice as early as this year despite reservations from environmentalists, who say the focus should be on protecting habitats for the remaining 200 tigers in the wild.
"We're not selling or renting tigers. We're only authorising people to look after them," forestry ministry conservation chief Darori told AFP.
"These people will have to follow certain conditions. The tigers will still belong to the government."
He said interested owners would have to "deposit" a billion rupiah (108,000 dollars) for a pair of tigers, which he called a "guarantee towards conservation".
The minimum area required to keep a pair would be around 60 square metres (646 square feet), although something the size of three football fields would be better, ministry officials said.
The animals' health would be monitored by government experts and mistreatment would be punished by fines or jail terms.
"Let's think of the tigers' new homes as mini-zoos," Darori said.
Another ministry official, Didi Wuryanto, dismissed fears the scheme could put a price on the heads of the few remaining wild tigers, which are nearing extinction due to habitat loss on their native Sumatra island.
Much of the jungle which the tigers call home has been destroyed by rampant illegal logging overseen by the forestry ministry, forcing the animals into lethal competition with villagers.
"The chances of people trapping Sumatran tigers alive in the wild and selling them are very low because of the high risk of getting caught and people finding out about it," Wuryanto said.
"Also, it's very hard to look after tigers trapped in the wild. They might refuse to eat and die."
He said there were about 30 captive-born tigers in Indonesia.
"This idea of selling the tigers to the public came about after several wealthy businessmen proposed buying them," Wuryanto said.
"They don't just want to own horses. They want to be acknowledged as special people with prestige, so they want to keep tigers.
"But we're not in it for the money... We want to save the tigers."
Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaigner Bustar Maitar said the government might not like to admit its plan amounted to selling critically endangered tigers as pets, but that was what would happen.
"Whatever the term used, this is the same as selling tigers. The government doesn't care about tigers, only about people with money," he said.
"This isn't the solution to save tigers. The correct solution is to save the forests first."
Activists also said the forestry ministry, seen as one of the most corrupt organs of the Indonesian government, could not be trusted to administer a tiger trade.
"Who's going to manage this money? How do we know the money will go towards animal conservation?" asked Harito Wibisono of tiger conservation society Harimau Kita Forum.