SUPPOSE you took an endangered species and put in a plan to save it. But after five years, there is no sign of reversing the catastrophic decline in numbers.
Surely you would recognise the plan is not working and look for alternatives?
There has been a catastrophic decline in numbers of tigers in the wild, particularly in India. Only in China are numbers increasing and that is because they are being farmed. That’s right – reared in large cages.
But what did conservationists decide to do at the recent Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in The Hague? They decided to restrict the captive breeding programs in China without coming up with a solution to the problem of poaching in India.
China has perhaps 60 wild tigers left, Russia has maybe 400, and India has seen its population crash to about 2500.
Orthodox conservation plans based on protection have failed the tiger.
The answer may lie in tiger farming and removing the international ban on the sale of tiger parts. A coalition of groups led by the Indian economist Barun Mitra last week called on the international meeting in The Hague to lift the ban arguing, simply, that when trade is outlawed only outlaws trade.
Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the tiger’s survival. But poaching was once a problem for crocodile conservation too. Widespread crocodile farming and a CITES-sanctioned trade drove poachers out of the market. The same approach could be applied to tigers.
China has perhaps 5000 tigers in captive facilities (the US has closer to 10,000). Tigers aren’t all that complicated to breed. But tiger farming is unpalatable to many people – it seems unethical, cold blooded.
It isn’t clear what makes tigers special. Various wild animals are farmed or ranched, including crocodiles, emus, parrots and butterflies. And in terms of cruelty, having wild tigers killed by traps or inefficient poisons in India, far exceeds the fate of tigers in farms. It might be nicer to see tigers in the wild than on farms, but to make that happen we need to close down the black market.
The Chinese have got an excellent monitoring system for captive tigers. Every captive tiger has been micro-chipped and blood taken for DNA profiling. They can follow a chain-of-custody from farms to customers. The technology to prove tiger products are legally sourced is in place. Laundering poached tiger bone faces major hurdles.
Sanctions for trading or possessing tiger parts are harsh and can include the death penalty. Smugglers are being caught, but demand and the lure of the very high black market prices is keeping the trade alive.
The big market is tiger bone, used in traditional Chinese medicine for treating bone diseases. Tiger farms in China report visitors and their families begging for bones for treating serious arthritis. Whether we believe that tiger bone is effective or not is irrelevant – millions of Chinese consumers do, trusting in centuries-old medical tradition. Demand has not been curbed by Western NGO campaigns condemning the practice and the illegal supply of tiger bone has not been stopped by government bans. Wild tiger populations are paying the price.
Most black market tiger bone is actually fake. It is expensive for smugglers to procure tiger bone in India, smuggle it through Nepal, over the Himalayas, through Tibet and into China’s eastern regions. Shooting a local cow and passing its bones off as tiger is much easier. But this dependence on fakes does nothing to relieve the pressure on small wild tiger populations struggling to absorb losses from poaching. Last week the international community could have supported incentives for a range of commercial activities from eco-tourism, to breeding tigers and trade in body parts.
Barum Mitra believes the tiger can become economically viable and thereby survive in the wild – as well as continuing as a charismatic and culturally rich species.
An internationally sanctioned and regulated trade promised solutions to major threats facing tigers. It promises to create opportunities for habitat protection and the revival of the species.
Farming and trading have worked for other species. Last week in The Hague an opportunity for a new plan, a new approach to tiger conservation was lost. A growing tragedy for much of our wildlife is that we have become too timid to jettison ineffectual strategies when they don’t work.
Republished today from the Courier Mail with permission from the author: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,22153644-27197,00.html