End of the tiger tale?
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, The Hague
Tiger (Image: Save the Tiger Fund)
Chinese tiger farms house more big cats than remain in the wild
To Valmik Thapar, it is a matter of principle, of human dignity, and distortion of the traditional relationship between mankind and nature.
“To me it is disgusting,” he thunders. “It’s not civil to have tiger farms; it’s not part of anyone’s dream.”
The target of Mr Thapar’s ire is a somewhat vague proposal from China to re-open the domestic trade in tiger products.
The trade has been banned for 14 years, and using material from wild tigers would remain prohibited.
Instead, traditional medicine ingredients such as bone would be sourced from animals kept in farms.
There are thought to be at least five tiger farms in China, housing about 5,000 animals, the majority born and bred in captivity.
If there wasn’t a ban on the tiger trade, I assure you there wouldn’t be one single tiger left in India today
Astonishingly, that is more tigers than remain in the wild.
Animal welfare and conservation groups are virtually united in their opposition.
Re-opening a domestic market would boost poaching for that market, they believe, and would also lead to an increase in international trade, which would remain illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
A prominent conservationist who has spent 30 years observing India’s tigers, Valmik Thapar is under no illusions as to what this would mean for the remaining wild populations, based largely in India.
“If there wasn’t a ban on the tiger trade, I assure you there wouldn’t be one single tiger left in India today,” he told a reception at this year’s CITES meeting in The Hague.
But there was a wider message. Tigers are wild creatures; that is how we used to treat them and respect them, and putting them behind bars, denuding them of their instincts and their traditional behaviours, has no place in a world which claims to be civilised.
Tiger farms sprang up in China in the 1980s, when the market was still thriving.
Cages at a tiger farm (Image: Save the Tiger Fund)
The tiger could easily earn its keep and buy its way out of extinction, if we allow it to do so
Liberty Institute, Delhi
Bans on national and international trade stemmed the lucrative stream of material flowing out of the farm gates. Some turned to tourism for income.
An information document which China is presenting at this CITES meeting, entitled The Current Situation of Tiger Breeding and the Facing Difficulties (sic) of the Guilin Xiongsen Tigers and Bears Mountainvillage, laments the financial difficulties which one farm is facing.
“We need 50,000,000 RMB ($6,500,000) to run the zoo, and yet, the income from tourism was just 15,000,000 RMB ($2,000,000).
“Without a fresh financial support, the 1,000 tigers would be starving. Then, it would become meaningless to talk about protections of these animals.”
The farm owners display compassion too for the people who come to their door seeking medical help.
“Patients of rheumatism could be often seen to come to us for tiger bones, but we could give them nothing even when they get down on their knees pleading because it is not allowed.”
The tiger farmers receive a sympathetic hearing from some NGOs which believe that conservation strategies work best when the conservation targets acquire some financial value.
Xiongsen bear and tiger village
“When trade is outlawed, only outlaws trade,” says Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in Delhi.
Mr Mitra’s thesis is that money should be made from tigers in a number of ways, from ecotourism to trading in tiger parts.
The demand for crocodile skin, he says, used to be met by poaching. Nowadays, the supply chain starts in crocodile farms, which provide the same material at a fraction of the cost.
As a result, crocodile numbers in the wild have risen; and he believes exactly the same thing could happen with tigers.
“The tiger could easily earn its keep and buy its way out of extinction, if we allow it to do so,” Mr Mitra concludes.
It is an argument swiftly dismissed by Sue Lieberman of WWF International.
“It costs a lot to keep a tiger in captivity, and next to nothing to kill them in the wild,” she says.
“In any case, legitimate traditional medicine doesn’t need tiger parts. And those who use tiger bone prefer bones from wild animals.”
Farming for conservation
China’s approach is hard to read. Negotiations at this CITES meeting have resulted in a joint resolution on the issue from China, India, Nepal and Russia.
Tiger attacking a cow (Image: Save the Tiger Fund)
Farmed tigers lose their hunters skills, opponents say
Much of it is anodyne. The most intriguing clause reads: “Parties with operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale should implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to conserving wild tigers.”
So by implication, China is backing tiger farms only for conservation, not for trade. Yet some delegates say they have been told that the trade will be re-opened.
The Chinese delegation has not so far granted the BBC an interview to clarify the situation.
China has done a great deal in 14 years, in terms of education, enforcement, and banning tiger products from traditional medicine
At its root may lie a conflict between the desire to support the international trade ban and the goodwill of the international conservation community, and the desire to support businessmen who may carry significant weight in their home regions.
“China has done a great deal in 14 years, in terms of education, enforcement, and banning tiger products from traditional medicine,” comments Dr Lieberman.
“So why they would want to risk all that now, just to give a bit of profit to a few rich businessmen, I don’t know.”
Some of those businessmen are apparently making a profit from tiger parts already.
Earlier this year, undercover reporters from the UK’s Independent Television News (ITN) visited Guilin tiger farm and found that tiger meat was being sold illegally. The origin of the meat was validated by an independent laboratory in China.
John Sellar, senior enforcement officer with CITES, told delegates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has now endorsed the Chinese laboratory’s findings. This had been communicated to the Chinese government, he said.
How many tigers?
If the joint resolution is adopted by CITES, it is clear that difficulties still lie ahead, not least over that thorny issue of how many captive tigers would be needed for conservation.
“That might depend from region to region, on the habitat – it might be two in one place and 10 in the next,” said India’s delegate Rajesh Gopal from the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
“We don’t really need any captive tigers,” he added.
India has chosen a policy of engagement, hoping that by starting with this degree of co-operation it can slowly persuade China to bring the tiger farming era to a close.
If it does, what to do with the 5,000 tigers already in captivity will be a difficult issue.
They lack the instincts needed to survive in the wild. And coming from a small gene pool, they have little to offer the existing wild population.
But that will be a single problem requiring a single solution. For Valmik Thapar, a much larger problem looms if farms are not closed and the tiger trade banned forever – the final extinction of this magnificent predator.
“History will never forgive one human being or one collective of human beings if we take any other decision,” he says.