Friday, June 22, 2007

Can trade save the tiger?

South China Tiger is one of the most endangered sub-species of the tiger. No one really knows if there are any still around in the forests of southern China. The Chinese have been been exploring alternative strategies to save the tiger in wild. They have a successful captive breeding programme, which could help meet the demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicines, and reduce the demand for wild tigers. This article, "Can a trade convention save South China tiger?", appeared in the China Daily, on 22 June 2007.

The South China tiger is the most endangered of all tiger subspecies, so when it comes to protecting it, there's not much margin for error.

Small wonder that the dust is still settling on the tiger issue at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) two-week conference in The Hague, which ended on June 15.

Call it concern, call it politics, the conflicts were over trade in tiger parts and the efficacy of raising South China tigers in captivity for release into the wild.

There were two key components of the tiger resolution passed by CITES - captive breeding and commerce.

The resolution recognized the role of captive breeding for conservation. Indian delegates at the conference were among the first to claim success in stopping China's proposal for trade in tiger parts. While India focused on China, China sought to look at the issue of tiger conservation.
For decades many governments and NGOs have proclaimed that captive breeding has no role in tiger conservation. In 1995, a joint statement by China and India on the issue of captive breeding created such a furor that for years afterwards, India was reluctant to even discuss tiger conservation directly with China.

China has in the past few years set up one of the world's most ambitious wildlife conservation programs.

It has tried to identify and isolate the most endangered tiger subspecies, the South China tiger. While debate exists over whether the South China tiger still exists in the wild, all of the known 60 animals are in captivity in China.

Four of the carefully selected South China tigers were sent to South Africa two years ago, where a special program is being developed to revive the natural instincts in these captively bred tigers, so that they are able to survive in the wild.

A private charity, Save China's Tigers, has joined with the wildlife department of China's State Forestry Administration to implement the project.

The tigers are learning to live independent of their human handlers and have begun hunting small animals in the 200-square-kilometer facility in South Africa. The expectation is that within a few years, the progeny of the present generation of tigers in South Africa will be completely wild and ready for reintroduction in two of the designated habitats in South China.

Meanwhile, efforts are on to prepare two small reintroduction sites, both less than 200 square kilometers, for receiving the tigers. The goal here is to assess the quality of forest and habitat, stock them with appropriate prey animals, then release the tigers in a few years' time.

Ever since its inception, this program had been condemned by many wildlife NGOs. First, they doubted the pedigree of South China tigers in captivity in China. Second, they claimed that tigers bred in captivity cannot regain wild instincts. Finally, they felt that poaching would make it impossible for these tigers to survive in Chinese forests. In sum, rather than joining this innovative Chinese effort, these self-proclaimed champions of tigers chose to condemn the efforts without giving them a try.

This undertaking provided a great opportunity for Indian experts, who are among the few in the world with field experience managing tiger habitats, to work with their Chinese colleagues. But, despite the 1995 joint statement on the role of captive breeding in conservation, India chose to opt out.

So the Chinese sponsors of the project went to South Africa, one of the few countries where wildlife is taken seriously, both for ecological and economic reasons. China is still eager to have Indian experts help rebuild the designated tiger habitats in southern China. This could herald a new avenue of cooperation between the two Asian neighbors.

At the CITES conference, the role of captive bred tigers in conservation was affirmed. Is it any wonder that Indian officials and their NGO supporters are now trying to claim victory in an attempt to hide their failure to join China in this unprecedented experiment to rewild and reintroduce tigers to wilderness areas?

In addition to acknowledging the role of captive breeding in conservation, the CITES resolution on tigers urged all parties to limit breeding to conservation purposes only.

Rajesh Gopal, head of India's National Tiger Conservation Authority and a member of the Indian delegation to CITES, expressed relief that China has agreed to restrict the breeding of tigers. Gopal told the Indian Express, "This would have been disastrous for us. For, Indian tigers would have been laundered under farmed tigers."

China banned trade in tiger parts in 1993. But if that policy helped Indian tigers, there is hardly any evidence of it. In fact, many of the NGOs who in the past blamed China for not effectively implementing the trade ban have in recent years admitted that there is no longer much evidence of tiger parts in Chinese markets. So the question is, if India is losing a tiger a day to poachers, where are these tigers headed?

CITES, as its name indicates, is a convention that governs international trade in flora and fauna, particularly endangered species. China, so far, has not sought to reopen trade in tiger parts, domestic or international. China is only seeking expert opinion and scientific evidence, as part of a process to completely reassess its tiger conservation policies.

Most importantly, breeding and trade in tigers or their parts for the domestic Chinese market is outside the purview of CITES. Similarly, breeding and trade in live tigers is not prohibited in the United States, which has the largest number of tigers in captivity, estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000. China has about 5,000 tigers in captivity today.

A round of discussions with international experts is scheduled to take place in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin in early July. This is part of the review process that was initiated by China last year, and likely to continue for some time.

If after reviewing evidence and opinions, China were to decide on a limited opening of trade in tigers for its domestic market, it could do so completely within the CITES mandate.

What then to make of claims in the Indian media that the Indian delegates at CITES thwarted Chinese efforts to reopen trade in tiger parts when China had made no such proposals?

The world needs to decide whether scoring points against China is more important than exploring effective strategies that may help secure the future of the tiger in the wild.

Tigers surely deserve this.

Friday, June 1, 2007

China's market plan to save the tiger

Communist China is seeking a reassessment of conservation policies, and wants to explore the possibility of bringing the tiger under the discipline of market forces, in the hope of saving the magnificent beast. But critics from the “free world” are blaming the tiger crisis on market failure, and seeking a greatly enhanced role for the state. China is looking at the profit motive to save the tiger, while its critics are looking to brute force to implement the prohibition on smuggling.

In this article titled, "China’s Market Plan to Save the Tiger", published in Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), in June 2007, I explore the prospect for the tiger in the wild.

The Nepalese minister inaugurating the international tiger symposium in Kathmandu in mid-April acknowledged that traditional approaches in the conservation field are not bearing fruit, and called for new thinking. His call came not a day too soon. The number of wild tigers remaining in the world is at an all-time low, estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000, probably half of what was believed a few years ago. Yet while there was a range of policy options before the who’s who of the tiger world, the week-long deliberations brought only more confusion and contradictions.

Is the tiger facing a crisis at all? Could it be that in the past, wild tiger numbers in India had been grossly inflated because of a faulty counting procedure? Is it true that on average one tiger a day is poached in India, and if so where are these dead tigers headed? If reports by some environmental organizations are to be believed, then there are very few instances of tiger bones or tiger medicine found in China today. Why then is the focus on poaching, when others claim that the biggest threat to the tiger comes from the continuing loss of habitats?

Should India be commended for maintaining a smaller number of tigers in the wild, even if it does not answer to what happened to the vast sums of money that have been spent over the past decades? Should China be condemned for continued demand for tiger parts, when there is little evidence of tiger products in China’s markets?

For the first time, a large delegation from the People’s Republic of China participated in the deliberations. China is now considering legalizing the trade in tiger products from farmed animals within its borders. This further ignited the debate over the relationship between economic development and environmental quality. Are conservation objectives and commercial goals compatible? Is the consumer demand for tiger parts necessarily a prescription for the possible extinction of tigers in the wild?

For the past three decades of tiger conservation, commerce and conservation have been pitted against each other. The principal focus of the present conservation strategy has been to prohibit all forms of culling of tigers, trading in tiger parts and consumption. Policing has been made the cornerstone of tiger-conservation polices. The goal has been to place tigers and the forests so high on a pedestal that market prices won’t be able to touch these precious resources! So we have the paradox of highly valued resources placed outside the discipline of market forces, and some of the poorest people on earth living in close proximity to such valuable resources without any incentive to conserve and manage the resources in a sustainable manner.

The reality is that when there is a demand from consumers in the market, such a policy prescription is an open invitation to criminals and smugglers to profit from poaching of tigers. So poaching continues to pose a threat to wild tigers. This approach ignores the fact that tigers are a renewable resource. They breed very easily in captivity. In fact over the last decade China has almost perfected the art of managing and breeding large number of tigers in captivity, currently estimated at 5,000 animals. Bringing some of these tigers to meet the demand in the market for tiger parts by legalizing trade could make poaching economically less attractive.

There are plenty of examples of species thriving under the discipline of commerce. From bison to crocodiles, many species have largely escaped the threat of extinction. Just as the tiger conservation policy was seeking to prohibit commerce in the 1970s, crocodile farming was taking roots.

Today, while India continues with its policy of keeping the crocodile outside the scope of commerce, elsewhere crocodiles have become a very successful commercial animal.
An estimated two million crocodiles are harvested each year from facilities as far apart as Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Contrary to the fears of conservationists, this has not led to crocodiles being poached in India or elsewhere. The reason is simple. If an international brand name wants a large volume of crocodile skins at a competitive price, it has no reason to seek a poacher when it can procure it from a legal farmer.

Take the case of hunting. In India, the government has prosecuted film actor Salman Khan and others for their alleged crime of hunting a few blackbucks. Recently, former Indian cricket Captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was similarly ensnared in a hunting controversy. The blackbuck is a very attractive animal, indigenous to South Asia. Yet, today there are probably more blackbucks in Texas alone than in its home range in India. And it is legal to hunt these animals in the U.S.
In the U.S., blackbucks are looked upon as an investment, and therefore managed in a very sustainable manner by many range owners. It is estimated that in the U.S., the annual economic activity from a whole range of environmental activities, including nature treks, bird watching, fishing and hunting, generates revenue of over $100 billion.

It is possible to conceive a similar outcome in India or China, with their enormous diversity in wildlife resources. Big cats like tigers, lions or leopards could help transform the lives and living standards of some of the poorest sections of our populations.

Wildlife conservation, rather than being a drain on the national exchequer, could become
a contributor to the economy. There is an environmental dividend from economic development. Most rich Western countries have been able to restore and improve their environmental quality with economic development. Economic development opens opportunity for people to move away from land and reduce their dependency on environmental resources for their survival. China seems poised to reap this environmental dividend soon. Much more than poaching, pressure on natural habitats by poverty-stricken human settlements pose by far the biggest threat to biodiversity and tigers.

China’s economic growth in recent decades is credited with moving a couple of hundred million rural residents away from the countryside. This has helped lower the pressure on natural resources such as forests and wetlands.

China has identified a couple of original habitats of the south China tiger for a bold experiment in rewilding and reintroduction of one of the most endangered subspecies of tiger today. A few of these tigers have been sent to South Africa for a rewilding program to revive their hunting
and survival skills. The progenies of these tigers could be reintroduced in the designated
areas in China. Efforts are underway to help restore these habitats. And one of the prime objectives is to help integrate many of the remaining local villagers into the ecotourism model, so that these people directly enjoy the economic benefits of the environmental restoration.

Clearly, the declining human pressure on forest and wildlife, coupled with breeding facilities meeting the demand for tiger parts in Chinese market, together have the potential to dramatically improve the prospects of tigers in the wild, securing the future of these majestic animals. If the 21st century is the Asian century, then tiger conservation provides an opportunity to bring a new dimension of cooperation between Beijing and Delhi.

India has had a lot of trouble handling large cats in captivity. Last year, about half a dozen big cats died in Delhi Zoo. In 2000, about a dozen mysteriously died at Nandankanan Zoo over the span of a week. In China, breeders have managed to handle hundreds of animals in close proximity without a major calamity. Meanwhile, India has a lot of expertise in terms of people who have years of experience in managing tiger habitats. These people provide a ready pool of talent that could help China restore and rebuild some of its habitats.

The choice before the delegates in Kathmandu could not have been starker. Should their governments persist in spending millions of dollars in an attempt to keep the tiger outside the purview of the market, and look at commerce as the principal threat to conservation? Or should they seek to harness the power of commerce for the cause of conservation? The future of tigers in the wild may depend on the decisions taken in the coming months. Hopefully, the turmoil among the conservationists gathered in Nepal is only the beginning. For the sake of the tiger, one hopes it will expose the myth of conservation being necessarily at odds with commerce, and bring to light the reality of harnessing the power of commerce for the cause of conservation.

In June, delegates from around the world will discuss the relationship between commerce and conservation at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in The Hague, Netherlands. China is not currently seeking to reopen international trade in tiger parts. But if China decides to reopen domestic trade in tiger parts, just as the U.S. allows trade in live tigers, it will be perfectly in line with its international commitments.

This debate over the tiger is a reflection of the ironic reversal of traditional ideological positions. Communist China is seeking a reassessment of conservation policies, and wants to explore the possibility of bringing the tiger under the discipline of market forces, in the hope of saving the magnificent beast. But critics from the “free world” are blaming the tiger crisis on market failure, and seeking a greatly enhanced role for the state. China is looking at the profit motive to save the tiger, while its critics are looking to brute force to implement the prohibition on smuggling.

Welcome to the brave new world of tiger conservation!