China Urged to Uphold Domestic Tiger Trade Ban

WASHINGTON, DC, March 13, 2007 (ENS) - Chinese business owners who would profit from the tiger trade are pressuring the Chinese government to overturn its successful 1993 ban on trading products made from tigers, according to a new TRAFFIC report released today by World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC - the wildlife trade monitoring program of WWF and IUCN-the World Conservation Union.

The report by Kristin Nowell and Xu Ling warns that allowing Chinese domestic trade in captive-bred tiger parts for use in traditional medicine and clothing to resume is a likely "death sentence" for the endangered species.

Tigers are threatened with extinction, with a global effective population size of fewer than 2,500 adults in the wild, down from about 100,000 tigers of all ages at the turn of the last century.

tiger

Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a recent global assessment found that the tiger now occupies just seven percent of its historic range, with much of that range having been lost in China. (Photo by I. Ledgerwood courtesy TRAFFIC)

Adding to the pressure on tigers, investors in the growing number of large captive breeding "tiger farms" in China have petitioned the government to legalize trade of products from these facilities, which now house a total of 4,000 tigers, Nowell and Ling report.

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, TRAFFIC says.

In June 2006 a group of foreign delegates was invited to China by the State Forestry Administration's, SFA, Department of Wildlife Conservation to advise the government on legalizing domestic trade in captive-bred tiger medicines. The delegation was informed that the government had received a petition in October 2005 from unnamed domestic interests to review the effectiveness of the 1993 domestic trade ban.

As part of the SFA's research process, the foreign delegation was taken to the two largest tiger captive breeding centres - Hengdao River Breeding Centre and Xiongsen Bear-Tiger Mountain - the Beijing Tong Ren Tang Pharmaceutical Company, Chinese medicine markets and hospitals, law enforcement agencies in Beijing and Guilin and the North-east Forestry Research Institute in Harbin.

The international community learned of the policy review at the 54th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Switzerland in October 2006.

In January, an SFA spokesperson told China's Xinhua national news service that the government had no intention of easing its 1993 trade ban, but that China "welcomed well-researched advice or comments from experts and anyone who cares about the fate of wild tigers."

Also in January, China's CITES Management Authority reported to CITES that "the Chinese government is assessing its [tiger trade ban] policy with a primary principle that it should be more beneficial to the global conservation and population resumption of the wild tiger."

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Tiger bones are ground to powder for medicines like this. (Photo courtesy IFAW)
In view of these developments, WWF and TRAFFIC are urging that China uphold the domestic ban on trade in tiger parts. "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," he said.

"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," said Henry.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, all international trade in tigers and their parts is banned.

China's existing policy - a complete trade ban within the country, implemented in 1993 - has been vital to protecting tigers in the wild, the TRAFFIC report states, by curbing demand in what was historically the world's largest consumer in tiger parts.

China's measures to implement and enforce its domestic trade ban - from public education campaigns and promotion of effective substitutes for tiger medicines to severe punishment for law breakers - have been effective.

Still, tiger survival is threatened by illegal trade in bone, used for traditional medicines or for health tonics.

The illegal trade in skins for clothing is a growing threat, as well. Demand for big cat skins as status symbol clothing, particularly in China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, is increasing, with about three percent of Tibetans in major towns claiming to own tiger or leopard skin garments even though they knew it was illegal.

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Tiger and leopard skins fetch high prices. (Photo by Edward Parker WWF-Canon)
With tigers so rare, demand has widened to other Asian big cat species, including leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard, write Nowell and Ling. China's consumers have held the largest market share of these global, illegal trades.

Undercover surveys by TRAFFIC documented in the report found little tiger bone currently available in China. Less than three percent of 663 medicine shops and dealers claimed to stock it, and most retailers were aware that tigers are protected and illegal to trade.

But 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.

In their report, Nowell and Ling warn that, "Trade is flexible and new markets and trade routes constantly arise."

Since 1999, China has seized more tiger and leopard products than any other range state, Nowell and Ling report. "This shows strong enforcement effort, and considerable enforcement success. However, China's seizure records are also an indication of continuing demand, despite the market declines suggested by TRAFFIC's surveys. China's enforcement efforts must remain strong if illegal trade is to continue declining in future years."

"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," she said.

Captive tiger populations are a drain on resources and encourage continued demand for tiger products. Intensive Tiger breeding should be stopped, breeding programs should be integrated with international efforts, and stocks of Tiger carcasses should be destroyed, the report states.

WWF and TRAFFIC are calling 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.