Tigers by the Tail
Having staged a comeback, one of China's most prized animals is under threat yet again.
By Jonathan Adams Newsweek Web Exclusive
Under the blazing sun outside Harbin, in northeast China, Tiger No. 31 trots alongside a van packed with Chinese and foreign tourists. The van stops. The driver chucks a live chicken out the window. The 250-kilogram Siberian tiger pounces. Cameras snap away in morbid fascination.
It wasn't a pretty end for the chicken, to be sure. And if a proposed lifting of a Chinese ban on the sale of tiger parts goes through, the fate of Tiger No. 31, currently a resident of this tiger park and breeding farm, may not be much better. After he dies, his bones will be crushed up into potions for treating rheumatism. His skin will be turned into a jacket. And his penis and testicles—the original Viagra, according to some Chinese—will be slurped up in soup by an aging believer looking to give his sex life some oomph.
By some accounts, the market in tiger-driven medicine brought in more than $12 million a year before China banned the sale of tiger parts in 1993, helping to stabilize wild-tiger populations that were perilously close to extinction. Now some Chinese officials—under fierce lobbying from tiger farmers and would-be parts peddlers—want to lift the injunction to regain that lost market. That's alarmed conservationists, who fear that scrapping the ban could undo the progress of the last 14 years. Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, says flatly: "Lifting the ban on the tiger trade would spell the end for a number of wild-tiger populations across Asia."
On its surface, the idea of creating a regulated market for tiger parts has a certain appeal—and not just for the farmers. Chinese officials and others note that demand for such parts persists regardless of the ban. "It will be a waste if the resources of dead tigers aren't used for traditional medicine," said wildlife-conservation official Wang Wei. Legalizing the trade, they argue, could actually help protect wild tigers by reducing the incentive for illegal poaching. Free-market proponents point to the case of wild crocodiles. For the past few decades, many countries have allowed a regulated trade in captive-bred crocodile skins and other parts from farms or ranches. Even many conservationists agree this has helped save some (though not all) wild-crocodile populations from poachers.
But, they say, comparisons between crocs and tigers don't hold, in part because tigers are far more expensive to raise than crocodiles, upping the incentive to poach instead of farm. "In India you can poison a tiger for less than a dollar," says Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Raising one in captivity will cost $3,500 to $10,000."
What's more, say conservationists (who almost unanimously supported a U.N. resolution last month against lifting the ban), tiger parts from places like India—which has the world's largest wild-tiger population—could be trafficked to China. There buyers would have no way to distinguish illegal parts from legal ones, which means poached tigers and parts could be "laundered" as farmed ones. "Law-enforcement controls are not in place in China to police the tiger-farm trade," says the WWF's Dinerstein.
Some inside and outside China raise another question: should the Chinese government be giving official sanction to a trade that skeptics say is based on pseudoscience? "Tiger parts have no proven effect as drugs or medicine—they're useless," says Zu Shuxian, a retired professor of epidemiology at Anhui Medical University and an outspoken critic of traditional Chinese medicine. Zu and others argue that lifting the ban could jeopardize wild tigers in order to supply a market that's fundamentally fraudulent.
Others say the Chinese should note Russia's strategy in preserving its wild Siberian, or Amur, tigers. Only a few dozen strong 50 years ago, the population is now some 500 in the wild, thanks to huge nature reserves that were created for the tigers, a well-enforced hunting ban and "buffer areas" to separate tiger and human populations. Conserving wild tigers "is really about proper landscape-use management and getting people to change their behavior," says Xie Yan, the Beijing-based director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's China program.
Such efforts are more likely to help wild tigers than a risky experiment in selling organs and parts whose medical benefits are questionable. Conservationists and diplomats are now appealing to the Chinese government to keep the ban in place. The fate of Tiger No. 31—and his wild cousins—will hang on Beijing's decision.