Captive-bred tigers in a Chinese pen, via the EIA report (PDF)
Tigers are some of the biggest victims of the wildlife trade, with the rare cats' bones coveted for traditional medicine and their coats prized as rugs. In Vietnam, tiger parts are so valuable that they make for better bribes than cash. In China, however, tiger parts are in such high demand that tigers are being farmed like chickens.
According to a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, China's tiger farms are huge, with thousands of captive tigers being bred for slaughter. That's possible because China has essentially legalized the tiger trade, which is troubling considering China is a signatory of the CITES treaty, which bans international trade in tiger parts (amongst other animals, like rhinos and elephants) and which also calls for domestic trade prohibitions.
But far more troubling is the EIA's conclusion that China's tiger farms are actually stimulating demand for wild tigers. The report states that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 captive tigers in China, a population that boomed from just a couple dozen in the 80s thanks to favorable legal policies as well as overt funding from China's State Forestry Administration. (As the Times noted in 2010, China's largest tiger farm is run by the SFA.) Meanwhile, China's wild tiger population has plummeted to just a few dozen individuals, down from a high of around 4,000 in the late 1940s.
Why the swing? One thing undercover EIA investigators found was that tiger skins from legal, captive-bred sources were between 50-300 percent more expensive than skins poached in the wild. The EIA argues that captive breeding is stimulating demand for tiger parts, whatever the provenance.
The argument has merit: If tiger pelts in China are a legal, luxury good, more people are going to be interested in showing one off in their living room than if it was illegal. But since they're quite expensive, people will be drawn towards a cheaper alternative, which means poaching wild tigers, in China and elsewhere. That's not to say that banning the trade is immediately going to stop poaching, which is unrealistic. Yet by allowing a legal trade, you also support an illicit one.
This short doc on China's tiger trade includes tons of undercover video from EIA investigators. It's a good watch, albeit depressing.
That's a very key issue, which we've also seen in the rhino horn trade. Quasi-legal status makes the trade as a whole much more difficult to regulate, and spurs demand by the very virtue of illicit products being, in some instances, legal to own. There's another big issue for tigers, too: Unlike rhinos, whose horns can be harvested without killing the animals, there's no feasible way to legalize the tiger trade without killing the rare cats.
While all those tigers are worth a bundle legally–tens of thousands of dollars for a skin alone–their bones are also immensely valuable. A 1993 order from China's State Council banned the trade of rhino horn and tiger bones and their use in traditional medicine, but that's not stopped a thing (PDF). Tiger bone derivative, like wine steeped in marrow, are sold openly, and why not? Legally, the bones from dead tigers are supposed to be destroyed, but if pelts are legal, whose going to say no to a little value-added bone sales? The Chinese authorities certainly aren't.
It's a sad situation, especially when you realize all those thousands of tigers pent up in crappy conditions on farms and "zoos" alike quite possibly outnumber the number of tigers left in the wild. Many of the tigers kept in captivity aren't in top shape, and even if they were, thinking that China could put its breeding skill to use by reintroducing them to the wild is a rather difficult proposition, even if the country was amenable to that. Even then, there's still the issue that tigers are running out of habitat, which makes any dream reintroduction scenario even more fraught with dangers of human interactions.
The end result is thousands of tigers pent up and waiting to be turned into rugs and tonics, which is also likely fueling the demand for their wild brethren. The solution is similar to other aspects of the wildlife trade: Declare tiger parts unilaterally illegal and enforce those bans to push demand down, and focus on outreach and education campaigns to kill off the misguided demand for tiger parts in traditional medicine. Of course, in reality convincing government officials to actually carry out those solutions is much harder.