Can legal trade save the tiger?


Will lifting the ban on trade in tiger parts save the tiger? A look at both sides of the debate that raged during the recent international workshop on tiger conservation in Harbin, China.

“The risk of taking the wrong decision with a critically endangered species like the tiger is too high.” Dr. Urs Breitenmoser

Sinewy muscles rippled under his striped coat with every measured step that he took. The Siberian tiger was at once beautiful and menacing; yellow-green eyes narrowing in concentration as he chased his prey in powerful, bounding leaps.

The prey, however, was not wild deer or boar but rather freshly-cut beef thrown out from the wire-mesh covered windows of a battered white mini van. The tiger was not alone either. Running alongside him were another half a dozen Siberian males so that the effect was akin to that of a pack of hunting wolves.

The tiger was, in fact, one of the inhabitants of the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park, located in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin. Housing some 800 tigers, the government-owned park is one of the largest captive breeding tiger farms in the world and the second largest in China. Since it was established in 1986 with a population of only 28 tigers, the park has grown exponentially. “We have perfected captive breeding methods and, in recent years, more than 100 tiger cubs are born in the park annually,” said Liu Dan, the park’s chief engineer. As a result, the park was fast running out of space and, more importantly, the finances to support its burgeoning tiger population.

Financial constraints

The Harbin Park’s situation is not unique. China currently has an estimated 5,000 tigers in captivity and tiger farms across the country are bursting to capacity. Given that it costs around 40,000 Yuan ($5200) a year to maintain a single adult tiger, most are under similar financial constraints.

As a result, the managers of these captive tiger breeding programmes are lobbying the Chinese government to lift its 14-year-old ban on domestic trade in tiger parts. What park owners and managers want is to be allowed to cull a certain number of the tigers they breed in captivity for legal sale of body parts. They argue that the resulting profit can then be ploughed into other conservation schemes like efforts to re-wild captive-bred animals in addition to ensuring that the remaining tigers on the farm are well fed and healthy.

In making their case, the park owners are essentially borrowing an argument that environmental economists have been advocating for several years: to save the tiger; selling it might be necessary. But to many in the tiger conservation community, the thought of tiger trade is so repellent that the mere mention of the idea causes bared teeth and extended claws.

With China, the world’s primary consumer of tiger products, agreeing to a ban on trade back in 1993, the debate appeared to have settled in favour of those who held that commerce and conservation could never be bedfellows. However, recent moves by Beijing are signalling that the country is taking a hard look at the ban’s efficacy; throwing the issue wide-open once again.

High stakes

For neighbouring India, home to a majority of the world’s wild tigers, the debate has particularly high stakes. The sharp increase in poaching that has cost the lives of hundreds of wild tigers over the last 15-odd years is usually linked to the demand for tiger parts in China. Tiger bones, organs and blood are vital ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and, despite China’s ban on trade in parts, demand for these products continues to exist. China itself has 50 or less tigers left in the wild so that the underground market that has emerged to feed this persisting demand sources its products from neighbouring countries with a larger supply of wild tigers like India.

In early July, China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) hosted an international workshop on tiger conservation in Harbin to gather expert opinion on the likely impact that lifting the domestic ban on tiger trade would have on the wild tiger population in China and elsewhere. One of the key participants was Eugene Lapointe, President of the IWMC- World Conservation Trust and an advocate of legalising the tiger trade. “The way forward in conservation is always to develop an economic mechanism around the species that will pay for the animal’s own conservation,” he asserted. At the crux of his argument is the notion that conservationists should exploit the fact that the tiger is a valuable and renewable economic resource to generate the funds to save it rather than denying the animal’s economic value and focusing solely on law enforcement as a tool of conservation.

Dangerously endangered

Those who accept Lapointe’s views are united in their belief that efforts to save the tiger thus far have been a failure. They point out that, despite decades of investment in policing and other anti-poaching enforcement mechanisms, wild tigers today remain dangerously endangered. What is needed, therefore, are alternative strategies to those that have been tried thus far, said Barun Mitra, director of the New-Delhi based Liberty Institute and a leading proponent of lifting the ban on China’s tiger trade.

For Mitra, thinking out-of-box entails a change in the perception of the demand for tiger parts — from being the problem to being part of the solution. He argued that a legal market for tiger products would make the risks involved in poaching tigers economically less attractive and ultimately help protect the tigers that remain in the wild.

Lapointe elaborated, “A ban never stops demand; it only drives it underground.” What unites law enforcement officials and smugglers is, in fact, their common desire to make sure bans remain in place,” he said.

At the Harbin conference, the majority of the conservationist economists recommended that the Chinese government start moving in the direction of lifting the ban in tiger trade with a controlled experiment. This would involve permitting limited trade from a fixed number of licensed breeding centres to a limited number of TCM manufacturers. The resulting tiger-bone TCM would be classified as a prescription drug and made available only in a few pre-selected hospitals.

Farming animals to save them in the wild may seem counter-intuitive but there have been instances in the past where harvesting captive-bred animals has helped bring them back from the brink of extinction in the wild. Dr. Brendan Moyle, President of the Australia-New Zealand Sustainable Usage expert team of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), gave the example of the crocodile. Legal trade did squeeze out poachers when it came to crocodiles, he said, and as a result several endangered species of wild crocodiles were, in fact, saved.

Arrayed against the economic argument for the reopening of the tiger trade are most of the world’s wildlife conservation NGOs who assert that legalising the trade would only benefit vested commercial interests while destroying the remaining wild tiger population. “Were China to lift the ban (on tiger trade), it would put the final nail in the coffin of the tiger,” insisted Belinda Wright, Executive Director of the Wildlife Society of India (WPSI).

Stoking demand

She pointed out that the majority of experts who have field experience working with tigers are convinced that legal trade would only stoke the demand for tiger products rather than driving it down. No amount of tiger farming would bring down the price of tiger parts to a level that would make poaching unprofitable, she continued. Rearing tigers is expensive requiring $3,000-4,000 a year simply to feed a single animal. A poached tiger, on the other hand, can be acquired for as little as $50. Rather than being squeezed out by the competition from legal farms, she says, poachers would in fact have it easier than before, given that they would be able to launder wild animals through legal trade channels.

While advocates of legalising trade argue that laundering of poached animals can be prevented through the deployment of strict monitoring systems, Wright counters that the enforcement of existing wildlife laws was already questionable. It was thus highly unlikely that the government would be able to monitor legal farms as strictly as required to ensure that laundering was effectively prevented, she concluded. Rather than thinking out-of-box, what was really required was better enforcement of the strategies already present within the existing box.

Dr. Urs Breitenmoser, the co-chair of the Cats Specialist Group under the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, pointed out that virtually all the arguments put forward lacked hard data. Instead the debate remained opinion-driven with both opponents and proponents arguing on the basis of economic modelling or gut feeling rather than empirical knowledge or facts.

Indeed the degree to which the entire field of tiger conservation lacks firm data is astonishing. There is no reliable information even about facts as fundamental as the total number of tigers in the world. For example, during the Harbin conference, experts came up with wildly divergent estimates of the percentage of the world’s wild tigers that resided in India with figures varying from as much as 70 per cent to as little as 25 per cent. The one point of consensus was that the official Indian figure of 3,700 wild tigers in the country announced back in 2002 is probably an over estimation based on faulty census methods.

Absence of data

In the absence of such data it becomes impossible to accurately assess questions as crucial to the debate as the impact of China’s 1993 ban so far on the wild tiger population. Dr. Breitenmoser was of the opinion that, in the absence of reliable data on the matter, it was better to err on the side of caution. “The risk of taking the wrong decision with a critically endangered species like the tiger is too high,” he said, advocating a stay on the current ban. Lapointe, however, countered that the risk of doing nothing was equally great, since given current trends the tiger was likely to go extinct in any event.

If the Harbin conference is any indication then the possibility of conservationists of different stripes working out a common strategy to save the tiger appears dim. Instead there is a paralysis of strategy that unless urgently redressed will only ensure that the tiger will no longer burn brightly “in the forest of the night”. It will rather fade away dimly in rusted cages. stories/2007071550010100.htm


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