Legalise tiger trade to save species

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Temps de lecture : 8 minutes  

Tigers, as is widely recognised, face a range of conservation threats. One hundred years ago, tigers ranged form Bali to Iran. Since then we’ve lost three sub-species and the contraction range and numbers has been catastrophic for the species. Threats currently include habitat loss and genetic depression. Nonetheless, it is poaching that poses an immediate and intense threat to many populations. The most important black-market is probably China. Surprisingly, our understanding of this black market is poor. The research I conducted first and foremost was on understanding this black market better.

At the moment, the smugglers are winning. The strategy to save tigers for the last 20 years has been to- in practical terms- put a bounty of US$50,000 on every wild tiger in Asia. (Bounties are monetary incentives usually paid by authorities to individuals to kill pests.) The only catch with this bounty is you have to a criminal to collect it. So for the last twenty-years, we have been hoping that Asian criminals will ‘suddenly’ understand that poaching is bad. All they’ve understood is that conservationists are making them rich.

At an economic level, the problem is our current strategy to defeat tiger smugglers, has been basically an offer by conservationists to subsidise successful smugglers $US 50,000 for every tiger they kill. We’re losing tigers to poachers too quickly. Yet we have been persisting with the same policy mix to save tigers for decades.

Interdiction (at the border) is not working because the borders are large and smugglers have many different entry points and smuggling technologies. Tiger parts have entered China in cars, buses, trains, boats and planes. Three of the five busiest ports in Asia are in China. The southern border of China ranges from Vietnam to Pakistan. Smuggling routes between Chinese provinces and range states have continued to trade tiger parts in the face of bans and interdiction efforts. Smugglers know what to do to get around the challenge generated by law enforcement. China’s borders with range states are vastly larger than the US-Mexican border. The US hasn’t stopped drugs and people coming across that border. China and other range states can’t prevent tiger parts crossing their borders.

Tiger parts are also the hardest illegal product ‘type’ to stop. It is small volume, and comes across infrequently. It is much easier to intercept stuff that comes across regularly and in high volumes. (This makes it easier to identify a pattern, and discover the smugglers).

In effect, we do need to start brain-storming and coming with new ideas. Most things we can try on the law enforcement already have a counter established by criminals. Watch the roads more carefully, and the tiger-parts will come in via different routes. Get tough with sentences, and the criminals become more secretive. Or they corrupt the local rangers and police.

Currently there are two ideas that get floated (personally I think the supply-chain looks most vulnerable right at the start with poachers, but it doesn’t get examined often). With the caveat that they are not topics I’ve researched in depth, let’s consider these as options.

Can we reduce demand? This alas, is not a new idea. We’ve been waiting over thirty-years for this to work.

Everything that has been done (bans, purging Chinese medical texts of reference to tiger bone) to date has been intended to reduce demand. It has not worked- if it had, then black market prices would fall. Smugglers don’t fill out statistical returns for us to analyse. Hence, black-market prices are an important indicator of demand for tiger parts. If demand falls, so will prices. Alas, black-market prices remain resolutely high.

Reducing demand is a good long term strategy, and may occur anyway with generational shifts inside China. At the moment however, rising affluence and an aging population is (probably) stimulating demand and the ban has brought ‘new’ customers in (people who do not need bone-medicine but are stockpiling bones in anticipation). The demand for tiger bones is driven by culture and medicinal need. It’s not like the demand for an iPod where everybody wants one and prefers the latest model.

Increased business connections between China and range states (Indo-China especially) are also increasing the smuggling threat by opening ‘new’ paths back to China.

The other issue is that poaching is a ‘fast’ process. It’s rapidly reducing tiger populations. Education is a ‘slow’ response.

In addition, we have to understand who is buying tiger-bone. The Chinese who buy tiger bones are not deterred by a $US50,000 price tag, they are not being put off by the risk of 20 years in a Chinese prison (or death), and they most certainly know that this is endangering tigers. Approximately 2% of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) customers aren’t influenced by conservation risk- they’ll keep buying products from endangered species. It’s good that 98% will in theory stop, but the 2% is more than enough to wipe out tigers.

Getting these customers to stop is very difficult. They’re practically invisible within China, and there are enough of them to keep tigers under threat. I was told that there are 25m Chinese with severe bone diseases who would benefit from tiger-bone medicine. Even if we persuaded 98% of those that tiger-bone medicine was not appropriate, that’s more than enough left to wipe out wild tigers in Asia many times over. It’s not just about reducing demand, it is about how much we have to reduce demand and how little time there is to do it.

Added to that, we don’t have a clear idea of how to target these potential customers. So, we’re suggesting a marketing campaign that can neither zero-in on the black-market consumers, and that has no real educational hook. It seems that the message at the moment is “Hi- you don’t care the tigers are going extinct, you really believe the tiger-medicine works because you’re willing to pay $US50,000 to get some and risk the death penalty…please stop”. It’s not compelling.

Resuming some form of domestic trade in tiger parts has also been mooted (the Indian economist Barun Mitra being an early proponent). China has at least 5,000 tigers in farms and zoos in China. Tigers that die of natural causes have been piling up in freezers since 1993. This is clearly not a popular or feel-good solution to poaching. And to be honest, it’s not clear that resuming a domestic trade will assist. In terms of trade- there are market conditions where trade has successfully reduced poaching (many crocodilians). And there are some market conditions where it has exacerbated poaching (elephant ivory in the 1980s). A lot thus depends on how you set up your market.

If the system is designed to facilitate good monitoring, legal trade can pull customers out of the black-market. It’s done with kangaroos in Australia and alligators in Louisiana. In 1979 about 16,000 wild alligators were shot in Louisiana, now they shoot about 30,000. It’s a well monitored system that has helped lift wild alligator numbers.

So if we are serious about saving tigers from poachers, then looking to cases where we have significantly reduced poaching ought to be helpful. Many of those instances involve some regulated legal trade + good monitoring systems + credible law enforcement. China has very good monitoring systems (shown with musk-deer) and have err, very credible (scary) law enforcement. The likes of Sansar Chand would not last long in China.

So any analysis of a legal trade in China will have to consider the distribution system. A limited distribution through hospitals- say on prescription- has potential. It will be harder to launder products. Anyone selling outside a limited number of distributors would be easily identifiable as operating in the black-market. On the other hand, having a large, open free market would make monitoring much, much harder. So in the latter case, the risks to wild tiger populations are going to escalate.

So we can’t actually know if legal trade will assist or not, until we know what that market-distribution system would be. That’s basically all I claimed in my research. Nobody is going to really know if domestic trade in China will affect poachers until we know how such a legal market is designed. It is premature to say that trade will (or won’t) reduce poaching.

Because trade could potentially help, and the situation is grim enough then we should assess that option- properly. It’s not like anything else is really working to reduce poaching. It doesn’t matter if tiger farms aren’t run by conservationists. It’s not their motive that needs scrutiny. It only matters what outcomes we can generate for wild tigers.

Now, one of the most common arguments against domestic trade is the assertion that poachers can undercut farms, because it’s a lot cheaper to shoot a tiger. So we do need to consider the relative costs between farms and wild.

First of all, in all illegal markets the procurement costs (growing marijuana, shooting a tiger) are a minor cost-element. Most costs in illegal organisations come from getting the product up the supply chain to the customers. There is a reason why the illegal trade in China is about skins and bones (not teeth, claws, penises etc). Only skin and bone has a return high enough to justify the costs (and risks). There’s no reason not to send teeth and the like to China, if the only cost is shooting the tiger. There’s a very good reason not to if you can’t sell teeth at a price that meets your transport, bribery, risks and coordination costs.

So it is fallacious to compare the poaching cost (say $US1,500) to the farming costs. Unless the poacher has a magic carpet that can transport the product direct to the consumer, that hunting cost is almost irrelevant. (By analogy, the US drugs market gets most of its marijuana from Mexico and not Turkey, even though it’s cheaper to grow marijuana in Turkey). The supply chain really matters.

Second, the under-cutting argument assumes that farms and poacher are going to compete on price. That’s not what happens in legal versus illegal wildlife markets. You compete against poachers on quality (high quality, uniform standard e.g. farmed Crocodylus porosus –estuarine crocodiles- get a higher price than wild, farmed butterflies get a higher price than wild). You compete on volume. Crocodile farms produce thousands of skins a year, poachers can’t match that. And you compete on status- legal products have an appeal all of their own. Crocodile trade has emphasised to customers the conservation benefits of buying from legal sources. In China, you have the bonus of not risking 20 years in prison if you buy the legal stuff.

Illegal breeding of tigers is already happening in Vietnam (and I suspect Thailand). The financial numbers probably work for farms. If many conservationists were right, then this would not be happening.

The under-cutting argument is not new. This is the same argument we also got against farming crocodilians. In Louisiana it is cheaper to shoot an alligator than it is to farm them. In 1989, alligator farms in La. hatched 50,000 eggs. In 2005 they hatched 400,000 eggs. Clearly they can compete against the ‘wild hunted product’.

So what does this all really mean? I don’t know if tiger-farming will be cost-effective. No-one really does. But you’re not going to answer that truthfully if you assume competition will be on price and you assume that poachers have magic carpets to send their product to customers. People are often smart enough to get around these problems. I mean, it was probably cheaper to kill early cattle in the wild with rocks than it was to farm them, but somehow we did it.

So in the end, tigers are in deep trouble. Poachers and smugglers are pretty much on top of efforts to stop them. We’ve stuck to a policy mix for years that has had rather disappointing results. It’s a very messy problem because there’s not single black-market that will respond to a single policy measure. It’s becoming a wicked problem also, because there are no safe policy measures left. Do we stick with the same strategy that has been failing for twenty years and accept that many tiger populations will be wiped out? Do we try new strategies where the risks are not understood? And the number of ‘fast’ policy measures we have to counter the ‘fast’ extinction pressure caused by poaching is not large. We need more ideas on the table backed by better analysis. And therein is one of the intransient problems. Too much of the current policy mix has been driven by assumptions about the black-market that just aren’t holding up.

Brendan Moyle

Source : courtoisie de l’auteur

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