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.

No comments:

Post a Comment