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Contrary to what many may think it sounds like, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) does not have much to do with conservation. It has everything to do with us humans playing god; in short, deciding how many of another species one can kill without 1, driving it totally to extinction and spoiling our fun; 2, upsetting our lifestyles; or 3, upsetting the ecological balance (see #2).
But if you set aside the inherent callousness of it all, CITES does have to be credited with being a good convention, with 171 members. There are CITES officers designated by governments in most signatory countries, and CITES carries a fairly big stick in terms of sanctions. Governments do not want to be found in breach of CITES.
Battles at CITES are normally bloody figuratively speaking of course, but reflective too of the blood that is spilt, or not as the case may be, in faraway forests and seas. This year’s Conference of the Parties at The Hague from June 3-15 will see battles over African elephants, sharks, and tigers to name a few charismatic species.
The tiger, which India’s foremost wildlife research establishment last week said numbers far lower than even ”realistic” government estimates, was the subject of an unusually acrimonious meeting in Kathmandu last month (China and the Fate of the Tiger, Part One), on the sidelines of which the Chinese owner of a tiger farm assaulted an ITN television crew when it presented him with DNA test results showing meat served at a restaurant on his farm was tiger and not another animal as he claimed.
Chinese tiger farm owners have been pressing to open up the trade in tiger products, banned since 1993. With stock of a stock of over 4,000 tigers pacing their enclosures in farms that double as amusement parks and circuses, they stand to make a killing in the Chinese traditional medicine market. A few anti-regulation, free market liberal economists have taken up the Chinese cause and dressed it up as the market’s answer to saving the tiger. India still has more tigers than any other country, but the economists cite the awful numbers and say India has failed to protect the tiger. Supplying the market with farmed tigers will drive prices down, reducing the incentive for poaching. Lo and behold, poachers will give up their craft, and international crime syndicates will drop the tiger from their target list.
In the wake of Kathmandu, where the Bangladesh delegate aggressively rejected the Chinese contention and the Indian delegate was, in the words of several other delegates ”wishy washy” (does New Delhi does not want to tee off Beijing?) the Chinese State Forestry Administration sent a delegation to India. One of the items on the agenda : tiger trade.
Non government organizations got wind of it. So did the media. Pressure mounted swiftly on officials not to kowtow to the Chinese–or risk lose the tiger more swiftly than even the pessimists would say today.
The elephant twitched. The director of the Indian government’s Project Tiger Rajesh Gopal told reporters ”We have made clear.. that we disagree with them."
But whether India’s disagreement was non-negotiable or tactical will be put to the test at the CITES meeting. The signs are not encouraging : on May 29 a top Indian ministry of environment official suddenly said New Delhi may support China’s lifting of the ban if the Chinese authorities ”eliminate pressures for sourcing tiger body parts from the wild” through a labeling scheme which guarantees that products are only from farmed tigers;
and inform the public that wild tiger products are no better than those of farmed animals.
The real world is substantially different. China is currently unable to stop tiger products illegally leaking out of well known tiger farms; to expect it to evolve a watertight system for keeping wild tiger products out of a newly legitimized market, is far-fetched.
Also, China is in no position to eliminate pressures on wild tigers. It has probably less than 50 of its own left in the wild (but thousands in farms), and it is up to India to protect her tigers, not China.
India’s tigers are in rapid decline, the Wildlife Institute of India said last week. The Institute’s study, conducted over two years, was the most ambitious yet in trying to figure out how many of the charismatic big cats are left in the wild. It found that the tiger population in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh–which proudly refers to itself as the country’s ”tiger state” had crashed from an alleged 710 five years ago, to 255. Other states were almost as bad, with numbers down nearly 65 per cent across several. Final results for the whole country will be known by the end of this year.
Notes New Delhi-based wildlife photographer Joanna van Gruisen : ”Simple arithmetic provides a total, today, of around 1,300 tigers in the country; some tiger biologists believe the actual number may be less than 1,000, perhaps even as few as 800._We do not need to argue the numbers: whichever way you look at the tiger’s situation, it is dire; it is a national crisis.”
The figures come as no surprise to conservationists who have always maintained that the 2002 census which put tiger numbers at 3,000-odd, overstated the number–a common malaise in the hierarchical bureaucracy.
"The results are depressing," Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, told the Associated Press. "But it’s a major step forward that a government study has finally come to terms with this disastrous decrease in tiger numbers."
Unfazed by the negative reaction of the Indian government and howl of protest from the international conservation community–including many mainstream Chinese traditional medicine practitioners who acknowledge that tiger bone has little or no real medical value, substitutes exist, and the tradition doesn’t need more controversy and ill will–a Chinese tiger farm has submitted a request to CITES to consider allowing Beijing to lift the ban.
Soon after the kafuffle in Kathmandu, the US administration informed Congress on May 3 that it would work to keep China’s 14-year-old ban in place at the CITES meeting.
Todd Willens, head of the U.S. CITES delegation, testified to the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources that the United States would work to persuade China not to lift the ban.
”It is critical that the United States and other important partners of China speak up for tigers at the CITES conference in June," Judy Mills of the International Tiger Coalition said at the time.
"It is even more important that countries with wild tigers, such as India, let China know how important its trade ban is for survival of their tigers."
Indian and global NGOs are anxiously waiting to see if the Indian delegation to CITES takes a strong stand against the Chinese proposal. If it does not, and China manages to charm and arm-twist acquiescence to lifting the ban, it would amount to declaring open season on Asia’s last remaining wild tigers.
”China has indicated that it intends to open its national trade in farmed tigers. This would be a disaster for the wild tigers of the subcontinent” van Gruisen wrote on May 28 in The Hindustan Times.
”Having a ‘legal’ pipeline would make it too easy for illegal tiger parts to be traded without detection. Wild animals will always be preferred because they are way cheaper to obtain. At the upcoming international meet on the trade of endangered species (14th CITES Conference of Parties), it is crucial that India, as the most important tiger range state, joins the international community and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in speaking out against any such move. This is not just a Chinese issue; this is of global significance – a world with or without tigers? The cards are in India’s hands. Now is the moment to decide.”
China and India are often compared to the dragon and the elephant respectively. The elephant needs to stand firm next week at The Hague.
NIRMAL GHOSH, a journalist and conservationist based in Bangkok, is the Thailand Correspondent of The Straits Times. He is also a Trustee of conservation NGO The Corbett Foundation in India, which is part of the International Tiger Coalition; runs the website http://www.indianjungles.com, and has been studying and writing on wildlife issues for 20 years. He can be emailed at email@example.com