Friday, April 20, 2007

Corruption makes China trade too risky for tigers

April 1, 2007

A front page story in today’s Washington Post illustrates a sobering reason why China's proposed limited legal trade in farmed tiger products poses grave danger to wild tigers.

The story entitled "Corruption Stains Timber Trade" documents how companies like Ikea and Home Depot cannot make good on their promises to use legally-sourced wood because of crime and corruption along the supply chain that comes through China (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/31/ AR2007033101287.html?hpid=topnews).

"We're having a hard time getting the criminals to label their products ‘illegal,’" Ned Daly of the Forest Stewardship Council is quoted as saying.

"It would take enormous resources if we trace back each and every wood supply chain," Thomas Bergmark, Ikea’s global manager for social and environmental affairs, told The Post. "We can never guarantee that each and every log is from the right source."

The Post explains that unethical timber traders use bribery to fell protected forests in Asia and take the ill-gotten trees into China, where factories process them into furniture and flooring to be sold to unsuspecting consumers across the world who think they are buying "green" products.

Conservationists and economists both believe that a similar scenario will occur if China succumbs to pressure from tiger farms to lift its 14-year ban and allow trade in farmed tiger products. The bones of tigers poached in neighboring India, for instance, could easily be slipped into legal bone supplies from farms. Even well-meaning manufacturers, distributors and consumers would never know they were buying, selling and/or using products made from India's precious dwindling wild tiger population. As Ikea's Bergmark says, "enormous resources" are needed to guarantee legal supplies. Resources that would add costs to farmed products and make less costly wild products even more attractive.

With perhaps fewer than 5,000 tigers left in the wild, tiger experts say, the risks posed by reawakening demand among China's 1.3 billion people are simply too great when illegal trade channels are running rampant.

Feeling the growing pressure from the international conservation, zoo and traditional Chinese medicine communities for China to keep its tiger trade ban in place, two tiger farms held a press conference last week in Beijing to plead their case. The farms lamented their "tremendous economic burdens" as a result of the ban, but did not address why they continued to speed-breed tigers for their parts and products when a national prohibition was in place.

"If legal channels exist and patients can legally get their wanted materials of tiger bone for their medicine, the motivations to purchase tiger bones from illegal sources can greatly be minimized," reads a joint declaration by the farms. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Wild tiger bone is cheaper to get and yet more highly valued in Chinese lore. Furthermore, as The Washington Post shows so well, China, her neighbors and the world face an uphill battle in fighting the crime and corruption that make trade from illegal sources altogether too easy.

Look for the tussle over China's tiger-saving trade ban to surface in the news again as the pro-farming lobby steps up its efforts to convince China's leaders and the world that tigers should be farmed like livestock. As more video showing farmed tigers galloping in herds after chickens thrown from jeeps full of tourists and tiger skeletons pulled from vats of muddy wine makes its way out of China, more voices are likely to join in the debate.

The United States Congress is definitely taking an interest. The issue caught the attention of a March 13 hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which is likely to revisit tiger trade at another hearing in early May.

"I am not proposing we dictate anything to the Chinese government, but what can we do to encourage the opposite conclusion than to lift the ban?" Representative Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) asked witnesses at the March 13 hearing (http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/hearings/hearingdetail.aspx?NewsID=29).

"This has been a concern for quite some time," Ken Stansell, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Abercrombie.

Other governments are taking an interest as well. The issue is likely to surface for discussion in June among the 169 countries who are parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which has long recommended prohibitions on international as well as national trade in tiger parts and derivatives.

They should keep in mind the words of Ikea's Sophie Beckham, who decribed China's current difficulties in stopping illegal timber trade to The Washington Post: "Falsification of documents is rampant. There's always someone who wants to break the rules."

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