for National Geographic News
December 22, 2006
A controversial proposal to lift China's 13-year domestic ban on trade in tiger parts has conservationists baring their teeth.
At issue is the sale of bones, organs, claws, fat, and blood from "farm-raised" tigers—an idea proponents say will help stem poaching of wild tigers.
Illegal trade in tiger parts for traditional medicine has been a major factor driving wild populations steeply downward. And wildlife protection groups say that poaching would only increase if China's trade ban were to be lifted.
About a dozen privately owned, government-licensed tiger farms currently exist in China, most of them operated as tourist attractions.
The farms hold about 4,000 tigers. Conservationists and animal rights advocates have long criticized conditions on the farms and argued for their closure.
Farm operators say they can help with tiger conservation by legally selling products derived from captive tigers that die a natural death.
Flooding the market with farmed tiger parts, supporters say, would lower the profitability of poaching, thus reducing its occurrence.
Wildlife advocates maintain that the proposal is motivated by commerce, not conservation, and would likely spell doom for the last remaining wild tigers.
"China has taken excellent actions to enhance enforcement and to educate its public" about tiger conservation, said Sue Lieberman, Global Species Programme Director for the international conservation organization WWF.
"Any lifting of the ban would undermine efforts they have put in place over the last 16 years."
Materials such as powdered tiger bone have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and can fetch a high price.
When the domestic trade ban went into effect in 1993, such goods continued to be sold on the black market.
Despite a government-run education campaign to discourage the use of tiger products and promote wildlife-friendly alternatives, demand remains high.
Barun Mitra is director of the Liberty Institute, a pro-free-market think tank in New Delhi, India. He says wild tigers remain at risk because mainstream conservationists have been taking the wrong approach.
In his view the problem is essentially an economic one—and it requires an economic solution.
"Trying to choke demand by greater investment in law and order has always failed, whether you look at the tiger in India or Prohibition"—the domestic ban on alcohol sales from 1920 to 1933—"in the U.S.," Mitra said.
Instead, Mitra believes that wild tigers would be best served by allowing Chinese tiger farmers to meet the demand for medicinal products.
Mitra has been making the case for farmed tiger trade in newspaper editorials and public appearances, including participation in a debate last month in Washington, D.C., hosted by the nonprofit Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
The free market can protect endangered species, Mitra says, by according the animals their full value as private, saleable property.
Demand cannot be wished or regulated away, he says. If the only way to meet demand is by hunting wild animals, populations will inevitably decline.
After a recent tour of tiger farms hosted by the Chinese government, Mitra cited officials as saying that the country could produce a hundred thousand farmed tigers in the next 10 to 15 years.
By Mitra's reckoning, a captive population of that size could produce up to ten thousand tiger carcasses a year.
If the market were flooded by such an abundant source of tiger products, Mitra believes prices would drop sufficiently so that poaching and smuggling would no longer be worth the risk.
More resources could then be devoted to developing local economic incentives for tiger conservation.
"To save the tiger in the wild," Mitra said, "we need to ensure that the value of a tiger alive in the forest is higher than the value of a dead one."
But Mitra's "sell the tiger to save it" proposal has drawn a sharply negative response from conservation groups such as WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Save the Tiger Fund.
WWF's Lieberman says Mitra's argument has already been proven incorrect.
"It was the so-called free-market approach that led to [tigers] becoming so endangered in the first place," she said.
"China once had one of the largest tiger populations in the wild and now has one of the smallest. This is agreed by experts to be due to the unregulated, out-of-control domestic market in tiger parts."
Last month a coalition of animal welfare groups issued a joint statement during Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to India urging the Chinese government to maintain the ban.
And in last month's CEI debate, Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that tiger farming and trade would only stimulate consumption.
Poaching would remain profitable, she said, since it will always cost less to kill a wild tiger than to raise and feed a captive one.
Lieberman agrees, adding that consumer preference for wild tiger materials would help keep the black market in operation.