China and the Fate of the Tiger


Next week will see the first instalment of a showdown over the fate of what many would say is the very identity of Asia –the tiger.

A meeting in Kathmandu beginning April 16, will see many of the world’s top conservationists and wildlife trade specialists discussing China’s new and unusually persistent effort to open up the trade in tiger parts. China is sending a delegation as well.

For tigers this is a crisis.

China’s government is close to lifting the 1993 ban on the trade essentially to appease a handful of influential businessmen who have been breeding tigers in ”farms” regardless of the ban and now find themselves saddled with thousands of animals.

Ahead of the Kathmandu meeting, there is talk that Thailand–which has its own vested interests in controversial ”tiger farms” –may quietly support China’s effort to open up the trade.

After a group of conservationists visited China last month and for the first time publicly disagreed with a handful of economists who have been supporting Beijing, several of China’s tiger farmers came out in the open with a press conference demanding that the ban be lifted.

China’s other argument is that millions stand to gain from the medicinal properties of tiger bone. The public is clamouring for tiger products, says the Chinese government.

This comes despite a significant proportion of Chinese traditional medicine practitioners moving away from prescribing tiger bone. Tests in China itself, have proven that tiger bone is not much different to the bones of pigs, dogs or goats–and is almost identical in composition to a high altitude rodent found in plenty in China.

The appeal of the tiger, clearly, is in the imagination.

Opening up the trade again would be a total disaster and drive the species rapidly to extinction.

The trade in endangered wildlife is ranked third after arms and drugs. It is run by powerful international criminal syndicates. Thailand is one of the centres of the trade–both as a source for species and as a conduit; almost every other month shipments of endangered species bound for China, are detected and seized in Thailand as they pass through from Malaysia and other countries.

That tiger parts from wild tigers killed for a handful of Baht or Ringgit or Rupees in the wild, will be laundered through the legalised supplies in China is a foregone conclusion.

China’s 1993 ban was crucial in ensuring tigers still exist in the wild today, albeit in very small numbers. It is estimated that there are possibly a little over 5,000 tigers left today in the forests of Asia. Most are in India which possibly has close to 2,000. Thailand has around 400.

China has been lobbying international opinion to get the ban lifted. Securing the approval of key tiger range countries like India, Russia, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Malaysia, is important to China.

But in all these countries the tiger is clinging to the edge of extinction.

India’s populations are small and isolated. Indian tiger expert Valmik Thapar estimates that of India’s 30 tiger reserves, at least five may have no tigers at all. A sixth is proven to have none left; they were all wiped out by poachers in 2004.

Over the past 2 months, 13 Asiatic lions have been killed by poachers in their last refuge in India’s Gir National Park. The poachers, caught this week, said they were sending lion parts to China, where they would be passed off as tiger parts.

China has secured the support of a New Delhi-based economist, Barun Mitra, who has visited China on invitation from state agencies several times, and written extensively in the mainstream media in support of China’s position.

Mitra founded and runs the Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based think tank inspired by the work of, principally, the late Julian Simon.

Simon was famous for his faith in free markets and his scepticism of the environmental movement. In 1984 he wrote ”There is no statistical evidence for rapid loss of species in the next two decades.”

In the same year he wrote ”The climate does not show signs of unusual and threatening changes.”

Despite being proven spectacularly wrong on many such assumptions (though right on some others), Simon’s belief in free markets as the ultimate regulator lives on in some quarters.

The website which tracks ”deceptive public relations involving lobbyists, PR firms, front groups, political networks and industry-friendly scientists” notes that ”The Liberty Institute and Mitra.. put a Third World face on a pro-corporate agenda and.. denigrate and discredit civil society movements in the Third World who challenge corporate interests.”

Mitra’s argument is seductive : opening up the trade in tiger parts will flood the market, bringing down prices and hence reducing the incentive for poachers to kill wild tigers.

But in his most recent trip to China, Mitra ran into opposition.

For the first time, three conservationists–two Indians and one Singaporean–were also invited by China and publicly opposed him, adding fuel to an already bitter debate.

Conservationists and trade experts believe opening up the trade even in a limited experiment, will only stimulate demand in a market where years of effort at curbing it have to some extent worked.

In their statement in Beijing the conservationists–chief scientist of World Wildlife Fund ­India Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, and co-founders of the north India-based Corbett Foundation, Dilip and Rina Khatau–said opening up the trade was not really intended to save the species but ”to satisfy demand, appease consumers and create viability for vested human interests, mainly of tiger farms.”

Opening up the trade would benefit individuals like Zhou Weisheng, owner of the Guilin Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Farm, which has over 1,000 tigers mainly because the farm continued breeding them after the 1993 ban.
Zhou clearly made a bad business decision in continuing his tiger breeding, says Rina Khatau. If Mitra and others truly believed in the free market, why not let the businessman pay the price instead of supporting state intervention to rescue him and dozens of others with hundreds and in some cases thousands of tigers in ”farms.”

But China says they must be paid compensation, and if tiger range countries do not want the ban on tiger parts lifted, it is they should pay the farmers. Millions of Dollars are raised worldwide to conserve the tiger, but China gets no credit, some Chinese officials say.

But tiger parts and products are already surreptitiously and sometimes quite openly traded out of these farms. Reports of tiger products from some of the farms, made headlines in China last year and elicited a reassurance from a top official, Cao Qingyao of the State Forestry Administration, who told the news agency Xinhua in January this year that China was very concerned about the situation of wild tigers worldwide and would continue to work with the international community to save the species.

“A number of international organizations and experts have questioned China’s wild tiger protection policies,” Cao said.

“The government attaches great importance to their queries. A worldwide policy study on how to effectively protect wild tigers and help them multiply is underway.”

Mitra insists that farming endangered species is the key to their survival.
It is difficult to find any conservationist who agrees–or who can produce an example of the theory working in the real world.

Mitra himself cites one example–of crocodiles. But China director of TRAFFIC Xu Hongfa, points out that crocodiles are far cheaper to breed than tigers so their example provides no parallel.

Besides, say conservationists, breeding crocodiles has not helped the species in the wild. Thailand breeds crocodiles but the Siamese crocodile remains endangered.

Says Kuala Lumpur based Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC, an organization that tracks and studies the illegal trade in wildlife : ”A domestic supply (of cattle) hasn’t stopped the poaching of (indigenous south east Asian wild species like) banteng and kouprey.”

Likewise, a supply of farmed pork, does not stop hunters from going after wild boar.

Dr Ullas Karanth of the New-York based Wildlife Conservation Society–one of the world’s foremost experts on tigers–provides some perspective.
He cautions that the trade issue does not address the drivers of the tiger’s steady extermination: the main drivers of this are the killing of the tiger’s prey base, and the conversion of its habitat to different land uses.

Over the last 300 years, tiger range has shrunk by 93 per cent. ”Even if demand is suppressed, tigers will disappear in many area” says Dr Karanth.
But nevertheless ”Enforcement on the ground is critical–and not too difficult. Unless a culture of enforcement is brought in, we will lose the tiger.”

His Thai colleague who works on tiger conservation in Thailand, Dr Anak Pattanavibool, agrees that lifting the ban in China would have an impact on wild tigers, and undermine Thailand’s efforts to protect tigers in the wild.
Just as Indian and south east Asian authorities have been short on political commitment to enforcement, so expecting China to be able to strictly regulate an open market in tiger products is unrealistic, says Dr Xu.

Enforcement of wildlife laws in China is lax, and this will extend to the tiger farms rendering any system of monitoring ineffective, he says. In the event the ban on trading in tiger parts is lifted, laundering of wild animals through legal channels will be a certainty. Farmed tigers will always be more expensive than poached ones, doing little to dampen the profitability of poaching.

In the course of a 75-page report on China’s tiger market written for TRAFFIC by Xu Ling and Kristin Nowell and released last month, the authors write ”TRAFFIC’s findings provide strong evidence that China’s trade ban has been effective at reducing the market for tiger products, particularly traditional medicines. Still, illegal trade remains a threat.”

”Business people in China who stand to profit from tiger trade are encouraging demand for tiger products. And the government of China has been petitioned to ease its trade ban by allowing domestic trade in medicines made from captive-bred tigers.”

”Lifting the ban or weakening China’s policy by exempting products derived from captive-bred tigers would be dangerous, heightening the possibility that tigers will someday become extinct in the wild.”

Kathmandu will be a turning point for the species, which means–or at least should mean –much more to Asia ecologically, aesthetically and spiritually than simply something to eat.

Notes Belinda Wright, executive director of New Delhi-based NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India : ”The strength of this entire battle will largely depend on the stand of the (tiger) range states.”

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, runs the website and has been studying and writing on wildlife issues for 20 years. He can be emailed at