Doing undercover work across Southeast Asia, wildlife protection activist Chris Shepherd once had dinner with a trader in Myanmar, near the Chinese border.
Noticing several stacked cartons marked "Toilets," he asked his host if he dealt in toilet bowls.
The man laughed and, opening several boxes, revealed body parts of wild tigers and leopards.
They had been flown into Yangon from India, and transported by road to the north of Myanmar, ready to be taken across the border into China.
Malaysia-based Shepherd works with the worldwide organisation Traffic--a unit of World Wildlife Fund-IUCN--which monitors illegal trade in wildlife.
He recalled that encounter at a panel discussion on wildlife trade in Singapore last week during a conference held with the Wildlife Asia Film Festival.
Wildlife activists are now worried that if a move by China to ease a ban on trade in tiger parts succeeds, traders will get bolder and it will spell the end of the tiger in the wild.
China's 1993 ban covers tigers in the wild as well as those in captivity, including on farms in China and elsewhere. But demand for tiger body parts remains strong, particularly in China, where bones are used to treat rheumatism, and other body parts are used in the belief that they promote sexual vigour.
The ban was crucial in ensuring that tigers still exist in the wild today. It is estimated there are only about 2,500 left in the forests of Asia.
Now China, a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has begun lobbying to secure the agreement of key countries to ease the ban on trade in body parts of tigers, saying many people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis will benefit.
But conservationists fear that lifting the ban, even within China, will affect wild tigers everywhere, and especially in India, which with about 2,000 animals, accounts for around 80% of the world's last wild tigers.
Indian tiger expert Valmik Thapar estimates that of India's 30 tiger reserves, at least five may have no tigers at all. All the tigers in a 6th reserve were wiped out by poachers in 2004.
Among others, China has secured the support of New Delhi-based economist Barun Mitra, who has visited the country and written extensively in the media saying trade in tiger body parts should be allowed.
He founded and runs the Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based thinktank which has been described as "an extreme right-wing anti-regulation pressure group."
Mitra's argument is simple: Opening up the trade in tiger parts will flood the market, bring down prices, and in turn reduce the incentive for poachers to kill wild tigers.
But on his most recent visit to China about a month ago, three conservationists who were present publicly disagreed.
The conservationists--chief scientist of World Wildlife Fund-India Dr AJT Johnsingh and co-founders of the north India-based Corbett Foundation, Indian Dilip Khatau and his Singaporean wife Rina--said the intent of opening up the trade was clearly not to save the species, but "to satisfy demand, appease consumers and create viability for vested human interests, mainly of tiger farms."
Opening up the trade would benefit individuals like Zhou Weisheng, owner of Guilin Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Farm in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The farm has well over 1,000 tigers, mainly because it continued to breed them after the 1993 ban.
Zhou--and other farmers stuck with thousands of tigers--clearly made a bad business decision in continuing breeding the cats, says Mrs Khatau. In a free market, the government should not intervene to rescue him, she said.
Mitra and others who support lifting the ban say the market could be opened but remain tightly regulated to ensure wild tiger parts are not laundered through it.
But even with the ban in place all these years, tiger parts and products have been traded out of the farms--or smuggled into China from Malaysia, Thailand and India.
The Guilin farm operates a distillery authorised to make tiger bone wine, and a recent undercover team from the British television channel ITV ordered a tiger meat meal at a farm.
Reports of tiger products from farms made headlines in China last year, eliciting a response from a top State Forestry Administration official in January this year that China did not intend to lift its ban.
But he added that a worldwide policy study on how to "effectively protect wild tigers and help them multiply" was under way.
Mitra believes farming endangered species is the key to their survival and cites crocodiles as an example.
But that is no parallel, said Xu Hongfa, China director of Traffic, because crocodiles are far cheaper to breed than tigers.
Besides, breeding has done little to protect animals in the wild, say conservationists.
Thailand breeds crocodiles, but the Siamese crocodile remains endangered. Cattle farming has not stopped poaching of Southeast Asian wild species like the banteng and kouprey, and pig farming has not deterred hunters from going after wild boar.
Dr Ullas Karanth of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the world's foremost experts on tigers, said in Singapore last week that protection of tigers and their habitat remains critical.
"Unless a culture of enforcement is brought in, we will lose the tiger," he said.
Enforcement is weak across the board. Indian and Southeast Asian authorities have been short on political commitment to enforcement, and it is unrealistic to expect China to be able to strictly regulate an open market in tiger products, said Xu.
Enforcement of wildlife laws in China is lax, and this laxity will extend to the tiger farms, he said.
A 75-page report on China's tiger market, written by Traffic researchers Xu Ling and Kristin Nowell and released last week, said, "Business people in China who stand to profit from the tiger trade are encouraging demand for tiger products. And the government of China has been petitioned to ease its trade ban by allowing domestic trade in medicines made from captive-bred tigers.
"Lifting the ban or weakening China's policy by exempting products derived from captive-bred tigers would be dangerous, heightening the possibility that tigers will someday become extinct in the wild." (By Nirmal Ghosh, The Straits Times/ANN)
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