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Earning their stripes

Earning their stripes

Viewpoint: Debbie Banks
Monday, 29 June 2009 16:36 UK

Next week in Geneva, a prime issue for a UN endangered species committee called Cites will be illegal trade in wild tigers. In this week’s Green Room, Debbie Banks argues that a handful of businessmen want to reduce the tigers to nothing more than a luxury commodity.

“Bagh Bachao, Jungle Bachao, Bharat Bachao” is the rallying cry of NGOs and activists across India, and they’re right: Save the Tiger, Save the Forest, Save India.

The future of the tiger and its jungle home are inextricably linked to the survival of all of us, not just the people who live in tiger country.

The forests that are protected in the name of the tiger are vital to mitigate climate change and to secure water resources.

The tiger is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem and thus a symbol of good governance and political commitment to an equitable and sustainable future.

It is also a cultural and religious icon, venerated, feared and revered by communities across Asia and the world.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has been investigating and exposing the illegal trade in tigers and other Asian big cats for over 10 years. We have documented the changes in the markets and the increasing role of organised criminal networks.

We have campaigned for more effective enforcement initiatives to disrupt their operations, and know there is so much more that governments could do if they wanted to.

Hijacked conservation

Looking to the future, it is essential to plug some of the gaps in conservation strategies.

Many people living alongside tigers have yet to benefit from the millions of tourist dollars that the “world’s favourite animal” generates; but in India, home to the largest remaining population of wild tigers, investment, policy and practice are at least moving in the right direction.

The same cannot be said for other countries, where business interests are hijacking the tiger conservation agenda, calling for the relaxation of trade bans so they can flood the market with farmed tiger parts.

The logic behind such a move is that since tigers breed well in captivity, farming them is an economical solution to satisfying demand whilst alleviating pressure on wild populations.

It’s a simplistic logic that rests on critical assumptions about the complex nature and dynamics of the illegal trade in tigers and other Asian big cats.

Assumptions about the motivations of those involved in the trade, the costs of the trade, the scale and type of consumer demand: all plugged in to economic models and squirted out the other side as gospel.

What the followers of this faith have failed to acknowledge is that their version of events does not hold true in the real world. The risk of proceeding with this as an experiment is enormous, and the stake is no less than the extinction of the wild tiger.

So who are these disciples and what is their motivation? There are tiger farms in Thailand but by far the biggest ones are in China, where there are reportedly around 5,000 animals in captivity.

Despite a 1993 ban prohibiting the sale and use of tigers in China, business interests have continued to breed them, speculating that the ban would one day be lifted and that they would be sitting on a valuable stockpile of body parts.

‘Conflict of interest’

Some argue that they want to sell tiger bone to save lives. Yet the Chinese medicinal community has long since promoted alternatives to tiger bone, which was never considered a life-saving ingredient in the first place.

Others just want to sell tiger bone wine. In fact, some businessmen are so keen they have already been found in breach of Chinese law, illegally selling the wine in tiger-shaped bottles and in one case, selling tiger meat.

EIA and others have found tiger bone wine being marketed as a general tonic and packaged as the gift that wins promotions and seals deals. Call it a conflict of interest, but there has been no meaningful enforcement action by the relevant authorities to stop this trade.

The very existence of these farms, and the persistent lobbying of the business community, is a distraction which deflates and undermines real tiger conservation efforts.

We’re being asked to believe that those who have already dabbled in illegal trade have a real interest in limiting their market, and that the enforcement authorities who have failed to stop them so far will be able to regulate a legal trade to prevent the laundering of poached tiger parts.

In June 2007, the international community spoke with one voice; it declared that tigers should not be bred for any trade in their parts and derivatives.

Delegates at the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties to Cites voted by consensus on a decision to phase out commercial tiger farms.

The move was championed by the governments of tiger range states such as India, Nepal, Russia and Bhutan, all desperately appealing to the international community to remove the farm threat once and for all.

Two years on however, those countries with tiger farms have failed to provide any evidence of progress.

In fact, China’s response to a notification from Cites seeking information on what steps they have taken to fulfil the agreed decision was met with a curt and derisive response that told us nothing. All eyes will be on China once again during the Cites meeting in Geneva next week.

EIA firmly believes that if China is truly committed to saving the wild tiger, it should close down the tiger farms and invest in more effective and meaningful enforcement co-operation with range states.

Changes in attitudes and markets show that consumers are responsive to targeted education and outreach, and indeed several markets in China have declined dramatically in the last few years.

Now is not the time to abandon efforts but to reinvest, financially and politically, in their continued success.

In so doing, we bring far greater benefits – not just to the survival of the wild tiger, but also to other endangered species, to the fight against corruption and organised crime and to a better world for all of us. Who doesn’t want that?

Debbie Banks is a senior tiger investigator with the EIA.

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8124176.stm

http://bigcatrescue.org