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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK
Call to tame China's tiger farms
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, The Hague

Caged tiger
China has about 5,000 tigers in captivity
The global body regulating wildlife trade has called on China to reduce the scale of its tiger farming industry.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting passed a resolution endorsing captive stocks only where they aid conservation.

China has about 5,000 tigers held in captive enclosures - more animals than remain in the wild.

The government is considering whether to re-open the domestic market in tiger products for traditional medicine.

There has been pressure from tiger farmers who say they are making a loss because of the 14-year ban on domestic and international trade.

Wild tigers are about to go down the toilet, and we don't seem to be doing anything about it
John Sellar, CITES' enforcement chief
Chinese delegate Wang Weisheng, from the wildlife management division of the government's forestry administration, said the trade would not be re-opened unless it could be shown to have a conservation benefit.

"I wish to assure [CITES] parties that we will not change domestic policy unless it can be demonstrated to have a positive effect on the conservation of wild tigers," he said.

CITES regulates international trade, and has no formal sanction on domestic markets. But a resolution passed five years ago encourages countries to close domestic trade in all big cat species.

'Clear signal'

The motion passed here calls on countries with commercial captive breeding programmes to keep them to a scale "supportive only of conserving wildlife".

To India and some of the other range states, along with conservation groups, this implies that the farms ought to close entirely.

Tiger  (Save the Tiger Fund)

"This is a real victory, a very clear signal from the international community that it is opposed to the farming of tigers," said Debbie Banks, senior tiger campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency.

"To reopen the trade would simply lead to an increase in demand for tiger parts and the 'laundering' of skins and parts from poached wild tigers."

US delegate Todd Willens noted that the farms had little direct conservation value.

"They're captive populations, we don't know their genetic history, they're not part of a species survival programme," he said.

Conserving sales

China will host a meeting next month aimed at plotting a way forward. Scientists, economists, policymakers and NGOs from China and the international community would be invited, said Mr Wang.

"I don't know what the outcome of this scientific evaluation will be," he said, "but experts have advised that if China were to supply tiger bone from captive tigers, the number of people wanting to buy from the underground market [in wild tiger products] would reduce.

"Also, sales of tiger bone would become a way to raise funds for international tiger conservation."

This theory, if endorsed at government level, could mean the farms retaining a large number of animals, perhaps even increasing their current stocks.

Steven Broad, executive director of the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic, was cautious.

"If we employ three economists to advise on this kind of issue, they will come up with three different answers," he commented.

"So any outcome [from the Chinese meeting] will be uncertain, there will be no clear answer, that's guaranteed."

While the farming issue has come as close as possible to being resolved here, the situation for wild tigers remains parlous.

Numbers are now about 5% of their historical level.

"There are tigers getting killed out there today," noted CITES' enforcement chief, John Sellar.

"Wild tigers are about to go down the toilet, and we don't seem to be doing anything about it. The international community has been pouring money into this, and we have failed."


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