Farming the tiger to extinction?
The Irish Times - Saturday, March 20, 2010
With captive tigers in China’s breeding units now outnumbering those in the wild throughout Asia, the Chinese government’s attitude to the trade in tiger parts could be crucial to the survival of the species
THE DISCLOSURE that, so far this year, 11 Siberian tigers have died of starvation or been shot at a zoo in China has placed under further scrutiny the controversial breeding facilities, or tiger farms, first established in China back in the 1980s. There are approximately 6,000 captive tigers held in 200 breeding units around China, almost double the number of wild tigers that now remain across the whole of Asia.
The deaths of captive animals at the mainly privately owned Shenyang Zoo raised suspicion that the tigers had been slaughtered for their body parts and bones, an accusation denied by management. Nevertheless, the controversy about how these tigers died brings their fate into timely focus in a week when members of the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are attending a special conference in Doha, Qatar.
One of the issues up for discussion there is the illegal trade in tiger parts and the controversial existence of tiger-breeding facilities. “The general public do not appreciate just how close we are to losing the tiger,” says John Sellar, chief of enforcement at CITES. “It’s got to the point where it’s very questionable whether it’s now a genetically viable species.”
Tiger farms started appearing when China’s native tiger vanished in the wild. The extermination of the south China sub-species had provided an endless supply of tiger parts for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). When the reserve of tiger carcasses finally dried up in the late 1980s, TCM practitioners were forced to look elsewhere for their supplies, which led to an increase in the poaching of tiger populations in India and Sumatra.
Counsellor Lan Heping, at the Chinese embassy in Dublin, explains: “In the development of TCM, people found the medicine values of the tiger bone could invigorate the circulation of blood . . . drive away stroke and strengthen bones. Tiger-bone plaster and tiger-bone wine used to be an important part of TCM and were used for almost 1,000 years. Since 1993, China has never approved any use of tiger bone for medical purpose and has no plan to introduce the bred tiger bone in clinical medicines at the present stage.”
China imposed the 1993 ban to help implement the international trade ban in tiger parts already in place under CITES. Since then, TCM practitioners have resorted to using alternative ingredients. Sarah Christie, tiger expert with the Zoological Society of London, says TCM practitioners “didn’t want to be the group that drives tigers to extinction, so it’s all just back-street stuff now”.
The tiger population was vastly reduced in Asia during the 20th century, mostly thanks to deforestation and the enormous growth in the human population. The predator had also been a prestige target for hunters in India during colonial times, and for bored Soviet Union soldiers stationed in Siberia. It had the misfortune of being declared an “enemy of the people” by China’s leader, Mao Zedong, in the latter half of the century.
Demand for tiger pelts has always been high.
The fear, mystique and majesty of the tiger for people in Asia has led us to this point. A common belief still exists that the essence of a tiger’s strength, agility and wisdom can be derived from its bone and sinew. Ultimately, the tiger may have the misfortune of being destroyed by its own mythology.
According to Lan Heping, the Chinese authorities have invested €50 billion in forestry protection projects to create more suitable tiger habitats and have cracked down on smuggling and the illegal use of parts, which carries the sentence in China of life imprisonment or death, along with confiscation of personal property.
“Maybe in some remote areas there are individual cases of some illegal actions, but that does not represent the mainstream – it’s not the government’s attitude,” Lan says.
Nevertheless, farm owners appear ready to flood the market with their stockpiles if China loosens the ban this week and allows for domestic trade. A letter, written and signed by tiger experts from several NGOs, states: “Tiger farmers have no vested economic interest in securing a future for wild tigers. One could argue that if wild sources go extinct, these investors would be in an economically advantageous position, having exclusive control of supply of the global tiger-parts market.”
ONE OF THE CHINESE signatories of the letter is Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “While tiger farmers have been actively lobbying for the ban to be lifted, they’ve started to market and promote tiger products,” she says. “Since they cannot sell them as TCM . . . they are selling them as a wine or health product. It’s a recent phenomenon. What this trade is doing is stimulating a demand that was already waning.”
Sarah Christie would like to see breeding licences withdrawn. “There’s a chance to finish this by declaring a final ban. There’s already a legal ban in place, but we need to get the tiger farms closed down. There’d be a problem with the captive tiger population then, but it’s the best solution.”
John Sellar remembers a visit to a farm a few years ago, when “the owner of the farm was clearly disappointed the ban was still in place – he felt he should be compensated. Back in ’93 he would have had a strong case, if he could have proved he was engaged in a bona-fide commercial activity at the time. But instead he continued taking a commercial gamble that it would be lifted . . . That is like taking a gamble at Ladbrokes and feeling aggrieved if your banker doesn’t win.” Following that visit, Sellar was offered tiger-bone wine near his hotel.
The EU has put forward a document for discussion in Doha, proposing further restrictions and calling on member states, and tiger-range countries in particular, to improve law enforcement and provide more information on smuggling and trade.
Kevin Cahillane, of Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, is a member of the EU CITES Management Authority. “We are clear in what we want and the EU is fully behind it,” he says. “My own view is that China will probably vote against because they’ll say is a domestic trading issue. What we are asking, though, is: why have at all if it has nothing to do with the conservation of the species?”
Lan Heping insists that captive tigers will eventually be rehabilitated. “The fundamental aim is to ease the pressure of poaching on the wild tiger and finally save the wild tigers, especially the Siberian tiger and south China tiger, and resume or reconstruct the wild tiger species,” she says.
She compares the farming of tigers in China to that of less endangered animals such as crocodiles, deer and falcons. She states: “Neither is there any scientific justification to prohibit the controlled and limited use of bred tigers and its parts and derivatives. If the resolution or decision of the conference of CITES violated the CITES regulations and interfered with the internal affairs of the sovereign state and lost its . . . objective fairness, member states could not support it and could only manage its domestic trade according to its national law.”
This is a stand that worries Grace Ge Gabriel. “This is part of the strategy,” she says. “On the one hand they say, ‘we are going to increase law enforcement and crack down on trade and publicly say no to it’, and at the same time they issue permits for people to trade in wine products. A lot of smoke. And in the smoky environment, it gives the illegal operators the opportunity to engage in trade, and it confuses . . . it confuses the public and it confuses us, the NGOs. We don’t know what is legal and what is illegal.”
Despite this, Ge Gabriel is optimistic that the majestic predator will still be around when the Year of the Tiger is again celebrated in 2022. “I’ve a feeling the trade ban will hold,” she says. “I’m an optimist; otherwise I wouldn’t do the work I do.”