Thursday, September 14, 2006

Relaxing rules on tiger bone trade could drive tigers to extinction

By Kejia Zhang
Created Sep 14 2006 - 10:45am

Earlier this month, the Chinese government put into effect a new regulation [1] tightening its oversight of the import and export of endangered plant and animal species. The law, which delineates the roles of specific government agencies in managing the wildlife trade, reflects China’s determination to crack down on illegal trading activity. It also reaffirms the nation’s commitment to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [2] (CITES), the global treaty that regulates cross-border trade in species.

CITES, which China endorsed in 1981, forbids the exploitation or trade of highly endangered animals, such as tigers and elephants, across international boundaries. In 1993, the State Council, China’s parliament, enacted a complementary circular [3] banning the domestic and international trade in rhinoceros horn and tiger bone, materials that are highly valued for use in traditional Chinese medicine [4].

Despite these restrictions, several Chinese companies continue to operate in a “grey zone,” engaging in the sale of tiger products derived from animals bred in captivity, not captured in the wild. At Xiongsen Liquor Company in Southwest Guangxi Province, authorities prove the authenticity of their “tiger bone” liquor products by pulling up full tiger skeletons from the large vats of alcohol in which they soak. More than 400 such skeletons, complete with leg fur and special markings on the head that indicate they were “bred,” dangle from ropes in the company’s cellars. Xiongsen has obtained sales approval from the State Forestry Administration and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, agencies that regulate the exploitation of species for commercial use, and all products carry authorization labels on their packaging.

Xiongsen is not alone in its overt production and sale of tiger products, and has plans to expand its production. Another company, Henghedaozi Felid Breeding Center in China’s northeast Heilongjiang Province, harbors a large tiger breeding center and raises large numbers of the animals for commercial exploitation.

China’s forestry authorities have long encouraged the breeding of endangered animal species, saying this will ease the pressure on wild populations. And they don’t oppose the trade in bred animal products. Recently, several tiger breeding centers have called on the government to legalize the trade in tiger products obtained through such operations, a proposal that has raised widespread concern among environmentalists and wildlife lovers. On August 30, six international conservation organizations—Conservation International, TRAFFIC (the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network), the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Save the Tiger Fund, and WWF—sent a joint letter [5] to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, praising the country’s new regulations on wildlife trade but warning of the consequences of easing the ban on tiger bone trade. The groups worry that if the domestic trade in tiger products is legalized, profiteers will seize the opportunity to mix illegal wild tiger products with bred tiger ones.

A change in China’s policy might also send the wrong message to consumers, stimulating greater demand for tiger products. At stake are not just domestic and international efforts to save tigers, but also years of efforts to educate people about wild animal protection. Moreover, relaxing the ban could bring insurmountable difficulties to law enforcement agencies tasked with implementing the nation’s new wildlife trade regulation.

According to research released in July, tiger habitat worldwide has shrunk by 40 percent in the past decade, and fewer than 5,000 tigers remain in the wild. At present, fewer than 20 live in China’s northeast, while roughly 30 survive along the nation’s southwest border with Myanmar and Laos (where many of the breeding centers and tiger product companies are also located). Any poaching of the fewer than 50 individuals remaining in China will inevitably lead to the tiger’s extinction.

Kejia Zhang is an environmental journalist with China Youth Daily.

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