By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, The Hague
Chinese tiger farms house more big cats than remain in the wild
To Valmik Thapar, it is a matter of principle, of human dignity, and distortion of the traditional relationship between mankind and nature.
"To me it is disgusting," he thunders. "It's not civil to have tiger farms; it's not part of anyone's dream."
The target of Mr Thapar's ire is the prospect of China re-opening its domestic trade in tiger products.
The trade has been banned for 14 years, and using material from wild tigers would remain prohibited.
Instead, traditional medicine ingredients such as bone would be sourced from animals kept in farms.
There are thought to be at least five tiger farms in China, housing about 5,000 animals, the majority born and bred in captivity.
Astonishingly, that is more tigers than remain in the wild.
Animal welfare and conservation groups are virtually united in their opposition.
Re-opening a domestic market would boost poaching for that market, they believe, and would also lead to an increase in international trade, which would remain illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
A prominent conservationist who has spent 30 years observing India's tigers, Valmik Thapar is under no illusions as to what this would mean for the remaining wild populations, based largely in India.
"If there wasn't a ban on the tiger trade, I assure you there wouldn't be one single tiger left in India today," he told a reception at this year's CITES meeting in The Hague.
But there was a wider message. Tigers are wild creatures; that is how we used to treat them and respect them, and putting them behind bars, denuding them of their instincts and their traditional behaviours, has no place in a world which claims to be civilised.
Tiger farms sprang up in China in the 1980s, when the market was still thriving.
Bans on national and international trade stemmed the lucrative stream of material flowing out of the farm gates. Some turned to tourism for income.
An information document which China is presenting at this CITES meeting, entitled The Current Situation of Tiger Breeding and the Facing Difficulties (sic) of the Guilin Xiongsen Tigers and Bears Mountainvillage, laments the financial difficulties which one farm is facing.
"We need 50,000,000 RMB ($6,500,000) to run the zoo, and yet, the income from tourism was just 15,000,000 RMB ($2,000,000).
"Without a fresh financial support, the 1,000 tigers would be starving. Then, it would become meaningless to talk about protections of these animals."
The farm owners display compassion too for the people who come to their door seeking medical help.
"Patients of rheumatism could be often seen to come to us for tiger bones, but we could give them nothing even when they get down on their knees pleading because it is not allowed."
The tiger farmers receive a sympathetic hearing from some NGOs which believe that conservation strategies work best when the conservation targets acquire some financial value.
"When trade is outlawed, only outlaws trade," says Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in Delhi.
Mr Mitra's thesis is that money should be made from tigers in a number of ways, from ecotourism to trading in tiger parts.
The demand for crocodile skin used, he says, to be met by poaching. Nowadays the supply chain starts in crocodile farms, which provide the same material at a fraction of the cost.
As a result, crocodile numbers in the wild have risen; and he believes exactly the same thing could happen with tigers.
"The tiger could easily earn its keep and buy its way out of extinction, if we allow it to do so," Mr Mitra concludes.
Some observers point to a big distinction between farming and ranching, which is what may have saved crocodiles.
The CITES definition of ranching entails regularly gathering eggs from the wild to ensure genetic diversity of the captive breeding stock, while leaving enough behind to ensure the wild population continues - all done under licence.
And Sue Lieberman of WWF International believes captive tigers will do nothing for their wild relatives.
"It costs a lot to keep a tiger in captivity, and next to nothing to kill them in the wild," she says.
"In any case, legitimate traditional medicine doesn't need tiger parts. And those who use tiger bone prefer bones from wild animals."
Farming for conservation
During debates, Wang Weisheng, from the Wildlife Management Division of China's forestry department, said the domestic trade would not be re-opened unless that trade would assist in conservation.
A resolution passed here by consensus - ie, with China's endorsement - says that captive populations should be reduced "to a level supportive only of conserving wildlife".
Farmed tigers lose their hunters skills, opponents say
But what does that mean? How many might be needed to support conservation?
"That might depend from region to region, on the habitat - it might be two in one place and 10 in the next," said India's delegate Rajesh Gopal from the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
"We don't really need any captive tigers," he added.
But Mr Weisheng suggested sales of tiger products to hospitals could raise money which could then be ploughed back into conservation - a very different definition which could, potentially, result in an increased captive stock.
In the shops?
Next month China is hosting a meeting at which scientists, economists, NGOs and policymakers will thrash through the various aspects of this issue.
A decision to approve the trade would bring outcry from neighbouring countries, western governments, and activists.
"China has done a great deal in 14 years, in terms of education, enforcement, and banning tiger products from traditional medicine," comments Dr Lieberman.
"So why they would want to risk all that now, just to give a bit of profit to a few rich businessmen, I don't know."
But some of those businessmen are apparently making a profit from tiger parts already.
Earlier this year, undercover reporters from the UK's ITN visited Guilin tiger farm and found that tiger meat was being sold illegally. The origin of the meat was validated by an independent laboratory in China.
John Sellar, senior enforcement officer with CITES, told delegates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has now endorsed the Chinese laboratory's findings. That has been communicated to the Chinese government, he said.
If China decides it is not worth the effort and brings the tiger farming era to a close, one thorny issue will be what to do with the 5,000 tigers already in captivity.
They lack the instincts needed to survive in the wild. And coming from a small gene pool, they have little to offer the existing wild population.
But that will be a single problem requiring a single solution. For Valmik Thapar, a much larger problem looms if farms are not closed and the tiger trade banned forever - the final extinction of this magnificent predator.
"History will never forgive one human being or one collective of human beings if we take any other decision," he says.