China's Tiger Trade Ban: It's Grrreat! But Will It Last?

These days in China, it's easy to get an eyeful of tiger. Visitors to the country's large-scale captive-breeding "tiger farms" may in fact get an eye fuller than they bargained for. In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, for example, the Siberian Tiger Park at first seems like a lark. A smiling tiger with a bowtie stands in the parking lot and points visitors to the ticket vendor. Patrons are driven safari-style through fenced-in fields thick with tigers — specimens of one of the rarest species in the world. People chuckle about how cute the big cats are and snap photos.

But then the driver encourages the crowd to buy a cow. Or if a cow's too dear, at $200, perhaps a chicken for $5. Suddenly the moment's cuteness — already threatened by the cats' cramped living conditions — dissipates. Tossing very-much-alive-stock to the cats is common practice in the park, so if gory spectacle is not your thing, you might want to give it a miss. Much more below the jump.While getting that eyeful of tiger is an easy if also potentially queasy experience, getting more than an eyeful is difficult and almost always illegal. Historically, China was the world's largest market for tiger parts: traditional Chinese medicine uses tiger products, and the cats' skins are used for status symbol clothing, particularly in Tibet. But in 1993, the Chinese government imposed a ban on trade in tigers and their parts, making it much more difficult for those who want a mouthful or closet full of this endangered species.

"In the early 1990s, we feared that Chinese demand for tiger parts would drive the tiger to extinction by the new millennium," says Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring program of WWF and IUCN-the World Conservation Union. "The tiger survives today thanks in large part to China's prompt, strict and committed action."

According to a new TRAFFIC report released yesterday, the ban has been a great success, and the domestic market for tiger parts in traditional medicines has been "virtually eliminated." (In other parts of Asia, tiger parts are still in demand as aphrodisiacs. But here's hoping Viagra will take care of that!) But the report warns of increasing pressure on the Chinese government to overturn the ban. There are less than 7,000 tigers remaining in the wild. Of the 9,000 or so in captivity, 4,000 are in Chinese facilities like the one in Harbin. Investors in these "farms" and other business owners who stand to profit from the tiger trade want the sale of captive-bred tiger parts to be legalized.

TRAFFIC reports that "any lifting or easing" of the ban will likely be the tiger's death sentence. As Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme, explains:

Allowing trade in tiger parts to resume, even if they are from captive-bred tigers, would inevitably lead to an increase in demand for such products. And a legal market in China could give poachers across Asia an avenue for 'laundering' tigers killed in the wild, especially as farmed and wild tiger products are indistinguishable in the marketplace.

In January, China's State Forestry Administration indicated that it had no intention of easing the tiger trade ban. A spokesman invited "well-researched advice or comments from experts and anyone who cares about the fate of wild tigers."

Now TRAFFIC has responded, and more international voices are likely to be heard during the lead-up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in June (China's a signatory), and the green Olympics next summer. Whether or not the tiger will be a survivor ultimately depends on how the ban is seen - in the eye of the China (chorus repeats until it fades out). ::WWF China

Tiger medicine image courtesy of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Tags: Animals | China | Endangered Species | Traffic | World Wildlife Fund