Growing up in a small apartment in Mumbai, Nikhil Nagle learned about wildlife the same way as a typical American kid from the Discovery Channel. After finishing his electrical engineering degree and MBA, and getting a fast-track job at ICICI Bank, he took his first vacation to a national park in India in 1996. He saw a tiger's pug marks—big cat paw prints—but no tiger. Then, in 1997, from the back of an elephant in the same park, Nagle saw one for the first time. "I fell in love," he says. Over the next 14 years, Nagle spent almost every vacation in national parks in India or Sri Lanka. "Tigers are quite secretive," he says. "You listen to the alarm calls of deer, monkeys, and peacocks to track them."
In 1900 there were about 40,000 wild tigers in India; today, the official count is 1,400. Nagle says that is "highly optimistic" and guesses there are 800. About 60 were poached in India last year, he says. As Nagle watched the tiger population dwindle, his passion for wildlife became a mission. He gave "a fairly large amount" to Kanha National Park, where he had seen the tiger, and started thinking about what more he could do. Earlier this year, after eight years at Citigroup (C), where he oversaw trading in Indian equities (and from 2002 to 2005, trading in some Southeast Asian markets), Nagle resigned and launched Last Wilderness Foundation, devoted to conservation.
Nagle has a Web site, an office, and six employees researching national parks. For now, he's mostly meeting conservation experts. "I know the big problems—poaching and human pressures on animal habitats," he says. "But to solve them you need to spend a lot of time on the ground to understand the intricacies."
The decision to leave Citi wasn't easy. "I was very, very attached to the people," he says. "It was just that I had another passion in life. You can't wait to be 55 to try something new." He'll keep his 2,000-square-foot apartment in Mumbai, and he'll still drive a Porsche Cayenne SUV, albeit not a red one (he has a history of crashing those). Beyond that, he isn't planning to live the high life. "I will never earn any money doing this," he says. "I'll trade my own account and use that to pay overhead and salaries. I was good at what I did, so hopefully I will be good at this, too."
The Economics of Tiger Poaching
Wild tigers, worldwide, 1900: 100,000; 2010: 3,000 (est.)
Wild tigers, India, 2010: 1,400 (est.)
Wild tigers poached in India, 2006-09: 700 (est.)
Price paid to poachers for a complete tiger: $5,000
Price paid for a complete tiger at market: $50,000
Price paid for a tiger skin at market: $25,000-$35,000
Price per tiger "part" (bone fragments, whiskers, penis): $320-$2,000
Earnings per day were poacher to work as a farmer: $1
COST TO GO FROM TRADING TO TIGERS
Annual overhead for office, staff of six: $125,000-$150,000
Citigroup wardrobe, average cost of suit: $3,000
Today's wardrobe, Safari trousers and cotton T-shirt: $70
Data: Wildlife Conservation Society, Traffic