Any easing of the current Chinese ban on trading products made from tigers is likely a death sentence for the endangered cats, according to a new TRAFFIC report released today by World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC—the wildlife trade monitoring program of WWF and IUCN.
The report warns that Chinese business owners who would profit from the tiger trade are putting increasing pressure on the Chinese government to overturn its successful 1993 ban and allow domestic trade in captive-bred tiger parts for use in traditional medicine and clothing to resume. For example, investors in the growing number of large-scale captive-breeding “tiger farms” in China are pushing for legalizing trade of products from these facilities, which now house 4,000 tigers. The farms keep captive-bred tigers together in large enclosures—a condition not found in the wild—and feed live animals to them before busloads of tourists. Such farmed tigers are unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild.
“Reopening any legal trade in tiger parts would be an enormous step backwards for tiger conservation,” said Leigh Henry, Program Officer for TRAFFIC North America. “A legal market in China would muddy the waters for enforcement officials and provide smugglers with a convenient cover for laundering wild tigers since farmed and wild products are indistinguishable. Raising tigers in captivity is 250 times more expensive than poaching wild tigers so there’s plenty of incentive to poach and smuggle the last remaining wild populations to extinction.”
Undercover surveys by TRAFFIC included in the report found little tiger bone currently available in China. Less than 3 percent of 663 medicine shops and dealers claimed to stock it, and most retailers were aware that tigers are protected and illegal to trade. Thus China’s measures to implement and enforce its trade ban ranging from public education campaigns and promotion of effective substitutes for tiger medicines to severe punishment for law breakers have been effective.
According to WWF and TRAFFIC, the Chinese ban helped prevent the extinction of tigers by curbing demand in what was historically the world’s largest consumer in tiger parts. Together with international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the ban has virtually eliminated the domestic market for tiger products in traditional medicines.
However, a TRAFFIC survey documented 17 instances of tiger bone wine for sale on Chinese auction websites, with one seller offering a lot of 5,000 bottles. And demand for big cat skins as status symbol clothing, particularly in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, is increasing, with about 3 percent of Tibetans in major towns claiming to own tiger or leopard skin garments even though they knew it was illegal.
“In the early 1990s, we feared that Chinese demand for tiger parts would drive the tiger to extinction by the new millennium. The tiger survives today thanks in large part to China’s prompt, strict and committed action and U.S. support for it,” said Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, director of WWF’s Species Program. “To overturn the ban and allow any trade in captive-bred tiger products would waste all the efforts invested in saving wild tigers. It would be a catastrophe for tiger conservation.”
WWF and TRAFFIC call on the Chinese government to maintain its domestic trade ban; strengthen its efforts to enforce the law against the illegal trade in tigers and other Asian big cats, particularly of skins; impose a moratorium on all tiger breeding; destroy the stocks of tiger carcasses; and increase public awareness of the current trade ban.