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Chinese chequers on the tiger trail

Print edition : Jul 27, 2007 T+T-

Should China revoke ban on domestic tiger trade to increase the number of tigers in the wild? Conservationists are divided.


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 a wild deer or a boar but freshly cut beef thrown out of the wire-meshed windows of a battered, white mini van. Running alongside him in the chase were six other Siberian tigers, creating an effect akin to that of a pack of hunting wolves.

Having snagged a piece of meat after a spot of jostling with his competitors, he retired to a grassy spot to tear into the flesh. His saliva-coated teeth glistened in the overhead sun and outlines of high-rise buildings in the not-so-distant background framed the scene at the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin in northeastern China.

The government-owned park, housing some 800 tigers, is one of the largest captive breeding tiger farms in the world and the second largest in China. It was established in 1986 with a population of 28 tigers. "We have perfected captive breeding methods and more than 100 cubs have been born in the park annually in the past few years," said Liu Dan, the park's chief engineer.

The park has already reported around 100 births so far this year and expects another 40-odd cubs to be born over the next six months. As a result, said Liu Dan, the park is fast running out of space and more importantly finances to support its burgeoning tiger population.

The Harbin park's situation is not unique. China is currently estimated to have 5,000 tigers in captivity in tiger farms across the country. Given that it costs around 40,000 yuan ($5,200) a year to maintain one adult tiger, most of the farms face severe financial constraints. Park owners and managers of these captive-breeding programmes are now lobbying the Chinese government to lift its 14-year-old ban on domestic trade in tiger parts.

They want to be allowed to cull a certain number of captive tigers for the legal sale of their body parts. The resulting profits can be ploughed into conservation schemes, such as the efforts to return captive-bred animals to the wild, in addition to ensuring that the remaining tigers on farms are well fed and healthy, they say.

The park owners are essentially borrowing an argument from environmental economists: to save the tiger, selling it might be necessary. But to many in the tiger conservation community the mere mention of the idea leads to bared teeth and extended claws.

With China, the world's primary consumer of tiger products, agreeing to a ban on trade in tiger parts in 1993, the debate appeared settled in favour of those who held that commerce and conservation could not be bedfellows. However, recent moves by Beijing signal that the country is taking a long, hard look at the efficacy of the ban, throwing the issue wide open once again.

For India, home to the majority of the world's wild tigers, the debate has particularly high stakes. The sharp increase in poaching across the country, which has cost the lives of hundreds of wild tigers over the past 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 domestic trade in parts there is demand for these products. China itself has 50 or fewer tigers left in the wild. So the underground market that has emerged to feed this persisting demand sources its products from neighbouring countries such as India.

In early July, China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) hosted an international conference on tiger conservation in Harbin. It was primarily meant to gather expert opinion on the impact that the lifting of the ban on domestic trade in tiger parts would have on the wild tiger population in China and elsewhere.

The conference was held less then a month after a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) resolution on tiger trade, to which China was a signatory, was passed at The Hague. The resolution, among other things, stated that "tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives", leading several analysts in India to trumpet it as a victory for the Indian tiger. The declaration, they claimed, left no scope for China to reopen its trade in farmed tiger parts.

However, by holding the Harbin conference China sent out the message that the decision to rescind the ban on domestic tiger trade was a domestic matter, outside of the purview of CITES.

Eugene Lapointe, former secretary-general of CITES and currently president of the IWMC-World Conservation Trust, agreed that the CITES resolution was "irrelevant to China's domestic trade". An adviser to the Chinese government and one of the key participants at the Harbin conference, Lapointe is 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 said.

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.

Taking a stroll.

Those who accept Lapointe's views are united in their belief that the efforts thus far to save the tiger 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, said Barun Mitra, director of the New-Delhi based Liberty Institute and a leading proponent of the lifting of the ban on China's tiger trade. Mitra sees the demand for tiger parts not as the problem but as part of the solution. He argued that a legal market for tiger products would make the poaching of tigers economically less attractive given the risks involved and would ultimately help protect tigers that remain in the wild.

Lapointe elaborated, "A ban never stoppers demand, it only drives it underground." Pointing to parallels in the drug industry, he argued that bans actually help criminals since they ensure a captive market and high profits for smugglers. "What unites law enforcement officials and smugglers is their common desire to make sure bans remain in place," he said. "But has it [the ban] helped tigers?"

The idea is that until a range of stakeholders are given economic incentives for tiger conservation the animal's fate will remain precarious. "If the protection of the wild tiger becomes linked to the livelihood of people only then will conservation efforts work," said Lapointe.

Thus, TCM manufacturers who buy poached tiger parts actually have an incentive to collaborate in wild tiger protection if a legal supply of products from captive tigers is assured. "We need to link the wild animal to the legal business. Make it clear that if wild tigers are being wiped out then the legal trade would stop, thereby adversely affecting the economic interests of the TCM industry," said Lapointe.

At the Harbin conference, the majority of the conservationist economists recommended that the Chinese government move to lift 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 be made available only in select hospitals. During the period of the experiment no tiger would be culled in order to harvest its parts. Use would be made, instead, of the stockpiles of tiger remains available at breeding centres.

Farming animals to save them in the wild may seem counterintuitive, but there have been instances where harvesting of captive-bred animals has helped bring them back from the brink of extinction in the wild. 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.

The legal trade in crocodiles did drive out poachers, he said, and in the process saved several endangered species of wild crocodiles. This led Moyle to conclude that "scepticism about trade on the basis of bioeconomic models is misplaced".

In addition to enabling a supply of legal tiger parts, Barun Mitra was also optimistic of the role that China's captive-breeding programme can play in enabling the eventual return of captive-born tigers to their natural habitats. The Chinese government is, in fact, currently supporting a pilot project to reintroduce the South China tiger into the wild.

Two pairs of captive-bred South China tigers have been flown to South Africa where they have been released into a controlled "wild" environment. Although one of these tigers has died, the others are being monitored. The hope is that these tigers will breed and that their cubs will be brought up with appropriate skills for the wild. The plan is to eventually release these "re-wilded" tigers back in their natural habitat in China. Mitra's optimism, however, must be tempered with the fact that there has been no successful example of tiger re-wilding in history and there are experts who claim that given the complexities of the process it is impossible to achieve.

Urs Breitenmoser, the co-chair of the Cats Specialist Group under the IUCN's Species Survival Commission, disagreed. He said the successful re-wilding of cats like the Eurasian lynx proved that similar success was possible with tigers. However, he remained critical of China's South Africa experiment. "The habitat and prey-base in South Africa and South China are totally different," he said, arguing that any such trial should have been conducted in China itself.

The reopening of the tiger trade debate by China has drawn ire far greater than that of Urs Breitenmoser's from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world involved in wildlife. "Lifting the ban on tiger trade in China would put the final nail in the coffin of the tiger," insisted Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

She said the majority of experts working with tigers in the field were convinced that legal trade would only stoke the demand for tiger products rather than drive it down. No amount of tiger farming would bring down the price of tiger parts to a level that would make poaching unprofitable, she said. Rearing tigers was expensive, requiring $3,000-4,000 a year to feed a single animal. A poached tiger on the other hand could be acquired for as little as $50, she said.

Rather than being squeezed out by the competition from legal farms, said Belinda Wright, poachers would have it easier than ever before, given that they would be able to launder wild animals through legal trade channels.

While advocates of legalising trade argued that strict monitoring systems ccould prevent the laundering of poached animals, Belinda Wright countered it with the argument that the enforcement of wildlife laws in China was questionable. It was thus highly unlikely that the government would be able to monitor legal farms as strictly as required to ensure that laundering would be effectively prevented, she said.

Justin Gosling, a wildlife crime specialist with the World Society for Protection of Animals Asia, added that there was no evidence to prove that legalising trade had an adverse impact on black markets and smuggling networks. He pointed to the market for pirated DVDs as a case in point.

The demand for reopening the tiger trade came from businesses with vested interests whose only concern was to turn a profit regardless of the impact on wild tigers, Belinda Wright said. Rather than thinking out of the box, what was really required, she said, was better enforcement of the strategies already present within the existing box.

S.C. Dey, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum, pointed out that Project Tiger had worked well in the past. All that was needed to ensure future success was greater will and larger resources for adequate implementation of existing laws in addition to habitat protection and improvement, he added.

Belinda Wright remained deeply suspicious of China's motives in the debate on tiger trade. She pointed to the fact that at the Harbin conference the vast majority of the participants were conservation economists rather than field experts like herself. With the exception of the WPSI, the International Tiger Coalition (ITC), perhaps the most important grouping of tiger-related NGOs, was wholly unrepresented at the workshop.

"This [conference] is a farce," said Belinda Wright bluntly, explaining that many of the ITC's members who had originally planned to attend the conference were at the last moment kept out by a series of hurdles thrown up by the SFA, including quibbles over travel arrangements, registration fee and other logistics.

"It's obvious that China has already made up its mind to reopen the trade. Otherwise why would they have developed so many tiger farms?" she asked. Indeed, in the Harbin tiger park alone more than 100 carcasses of dead animals are currently lying in storage, in freezers it costs some 2 million yuan a year to operate.

What became clear at Harbin was that rather than achieving any kind of bridge-building between detractors and supporters of the legalisation of tiger trade in China, the conference merely underlined how polarised the conservation community remains.

The problem, as Urs Breitenmoser pointed out, was that neither side based its arguments on hard data. Instead, the debate was opinion-driven with both opponents and proponents arguing on the basis of economic modelling or gut feeling rather than empirical knowledge or facts.

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 residing in India, with figures varying from 70 per cent to 50 per cent and even as low as 25 per cent.

The official Indian figure, announced in 2002, was 3,700 wild tigers. The results of the latest government tiger census using an improved methodology are scheduled to be released at the end of the year. It is expected to reveal a 40 per cent drop in tiger numbers over the previous figure.

In the absence of reliable data, it becomes impossible to assess accurately other questions crucial to the debate, such as the impact of China's 1993 ban on the wild tiger population.

Urs Breitenmoser was of the opinion that in the absence of reliable data 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 countered that the risk of doing nothing was equally great because, given current trends, the tiger was likely to go extinct in any event.

While Urs Breitenmoser advocated consensus-building as the way forward in devising conservation strategy, the outlook for a compromise looked dim if the Harbin conference was any indication. The economists amongst the delegates accused the NGOs of using conservation for fund-raising rather than fund-raising for conservation. The NGOs accused the economists of serving vested commercial interests inherently inimical to conservation.

At the conference, finger-pointing and allegations of ulterior motives abounded behind the scenes. "The biggest disaster for the tiger is quite simply the polarisation within the conservation community," said Urs Breitenmoser. Rather than poachers, TCM manufacturers or tiger farm operators, it will be the inability of conservationists of different stripes to open their minds to each other that will ring the death knell for the animal they are all ostensibly trying to save.

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