Apr 19th 2007 - KATHMANDU
From The Economist print edition
Breeding tigers in farms for their parts could kill the species in the wild
"TO SAVE the tiger, you have to sell it." So claimed Chinese officials and scientists at the Global Tiger Forum, a gathering of governments and conservationists in Kathmandu this week. The Forum studies the latest science and advises on policy. It will send its recommendations to the next meeting of signatories to CITES, the convention governing trade in endangered species, in the Netherlands in June.
The principal market for tiger parts, only available illegally, is China, where virtually every bit of the tiger has some medicinal or other use. The 17-strong Chinese delegation to the forum argued that the health benefits of tiger-bone wine and other concoctions are clear, and in high demand. They claimed a ban on the internal trade in tiger parts, which China imposed in 1993, has cost the country $4 billion, and yet poaching persists. The answer, they argued, is to flood their market with products from the 5,000 tigers that live on Chinese farms. The ban had been imposed only because tigers could not be bred in captivity, they said, but now they can be.
Conservationists are campaigning against allowing farmed-tiger parts to be traded. Only an estimated 2,500 breeding adult tigers survive in the wild, 80% of them in India. They are under severe pressure from loss of habitat and prey species as well as poaching. A relaxation of China's rules, they say, would drive the giant cats to extinction in the wild.
"It's make or break," says Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "If we lose this fight, we've lost the battle." A return to open trade, conservationists fear, would stimulate demand for a product that was slipping from public favour. China is widely given credit for successfully enforcing the ban and removing tiger from the official list of medicinal substances.
Wild tiger would probably remain more valuable because in Chinese medicinal thought it is regarded as more potent. What is more, it would remain cheaper for dealers to obtain. It costs thousands of dollars to raise a tiger in a cage but as little as $20 to hire a poor peasant to poach one.
A captive-bred tiger has never successfully been released into the wild, and conservationists say it would be impossible to do so with the 5,000 on Chinese farms, as their owners sometimes claim to intend. Sue Lieberman, of WWF, a conservation group, says the tigers are being bred like "chickens on a farm". And, despite denials from the Chinese government, there is abundant evidence that farmers are already turning tigers into food and wine.