China's Tiger Farms Spark a Standoff
Economists Propose Legalizing Sale of Some Animal Parts, as Poachers and Shrinking Habitat Thin Ranks in the Wild
By SHAI OSTER
BEIJING—The Year of the Tiger starts Sunday. But China's dwindling population of wild tigers faces an uphill battle in making it through the next 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.
With international attention focusing on the tigers' plight—including an international summit to be hosted in the fall by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—a pair of economists are proposing a market-based preservation solution that has riled some conservationists.
To curtail demand for poached animals, the economists suggest legalizing the sale of bones from some farm-bred tigers. In China, the bones are in high demand for use in traditional medicines such as rheumatism cures. Richard Damania, the World Bank's lead environmental economist in South Asia, estimates that tiger parts, including claws, skin and bones, can fetch up to $70,000 on the black market.
Such sales have been illegal in China since 1993, when Beijing joined a ban on international trade in tiger products. Before then, many tiger farms fed a demand for bones; after the ban, poachers and habitat destruction thinned China's ranks of wild tigers down to a few dozen. China today has about 6,000 tigers bred in captivity; world-wide, there are around 3,500 tigers in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago.
"No matter what you do, the economic models show this," said G. Cornelis van Kooten, a professor at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, who studies conservation economics. "If you have these farmed tigers and you let them out into the marketplace, you could save the wild tigers."
In a paper last year , Mr. van Kooten and his co-author, Brant Abbott, proposed granting exclusive rights to a few of China's tiger farms to sell the animals' bones for medicine. The sales would help the farms fight poaching and smuggling, the authors say, adding that along with tougher enforcement and government backing, the legal tiger trade could ease poaching pressure enough for wild tiger populations to recover.
Many disagree with this thinking. "Proponents of tiger farming have based their support on flawed assumptions and on studies which do not fully grasp or reflect the realities of the illegal wildlife trade," said the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit wildlife group. Many conservationists favor closing the farms, seeing efforts to preserve wild tigers as a step toward protecting broader eco-systems.
Conservationists want China to shutter its tiger farms, which range from serious research centers to commercial concerns where tourists can pay to feed the animals live chickens or cows. Larger farms have giant walk-in freezers filled with hundreds of tiger carcasses—which breeders say they are holding on to in case the ban on selling parts is lifted.
Many tiger-farm managers declined to comment on the matter.
The World Bank's Mr. Damania said, "Tiger farming simply cannot solve the problems. Tigers are dying in the wild and breeding slowly because of insufficient prey—food that they need to survive—that is being poached and hunted."
The idea of culling a species to save it has some historical precedent. Messrs. van Kooten and Abbot point to the divergent fates of the sea otter and beaver. For 200 years, the Hudson's Bay Company held a monopoly on the beaver-pelt trade east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Pelt prices were high, the company was profitable, and beaver populations remained viable because the company had a vested interest in sustainable harvesting.
West of the Rockies was a different story. There British, American, Spanish and Russian trappers competed to kill sea otters. But in 1824, the Russian-American Convention on trade and changing consumer habits in China where the pelts were sold began to slow hunting. The economists say the competition drove the otter to the brink of extinction.
Mr. Damania questioned the assumptions underlying the argument for raising tigers.
"Farming works if the price of the poached product falls sufficiently so that poaching is no longer profitable," he said. " That's why you don't go hunting in the jungle for wild chickens—because it's cheaper to go to the supermarket. In essence. You've got to get wild tiger bone cheaper than the farmed bone—a big ask."
It costs at least $2,000 to raise a tiger bred in captivity—and $200 or less to kill a tiger, the World Bank estimates.
Mr. van Kooten disputes those figures, saying that poaching is much more costly and that farms could achieve economies of scale to decrease the price of raising a tiger.
China rejects efforts to close the tiger farms as beyond the scope of international endangered species trade bans. So far, Beijing has supported bans on selling parts, but suggests that more research is needed to see if partial lifting could work. In a recent interview, Yin Hong (surname: Mr. Yin), deputy director of the State Forestry Administration, China's wildlife conservation agency, described China's ban on tiger bone medicine as a great sacrifice of ancient tradition that cost China's traditional medicine industry 2.3 billion yuan, $337 million, in losses.
Some Chinese zoologists say traditional preservation methods such as trying to enforce poaching bans or stop smuggling of tiger parts have failed to save the tiger, forcing a reconsideration of alternatives such as legalizing trade. The SFA began looking into the issue in 2005 after tiger farms petitioned to reopen sales. Clinical trials of tiger bones' medical efficacy are also under review.
"To date, the result of these protection measures for wild tigers is unsatisfactory," the administration said in a written response to questions. "The number of wild tigers is declining rapidly, and they have come to the edge of extinction. In order to turn round the trend, we have to reflect on our current policies and measures aimed at protecting and managing tigers, and maybe to revise and better improve the current policy and measures."
The statement added that the government is cautious but continues to asses its options.
—Sue Feng in Beijing contributed to this article.
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