|Stamp out the tiger trade
GLOBE AND MAIL
February 02, 2010
A major culprit is China, where economic power and use of tiger parts in traditional medicine is a lethal combination
the Chinese calendar prepares to welcome the Year of the Tiger this
month, it won't be much of a party for the animals themselves. If
anything, the occasion may simply push them closer to extinction.
are charismatic creatures that fire our imagination. William Blake used
the image of the “tyger, tyger burning bright” to pose fundamental
questions about creativity and morality. In 2004, the TV channel Animal
Planet surveyed 50,000 people in 73 countries and found the tiger was
“the world's favourite animal.”
Indigenous societies considered
tigers to be spirits or deities, legends depicting them taking human
form. In Asia the tiger is the “king of beasts,” and political leaders
attribute to themselves the strength and power of these impressive
animals. The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India,
Malaysia, Nepal, North Korea and South Korea, and is the emblem of Sri
As a powerful carnivore, the tiger is used
to symbolize bravery and valorize war. Advertisers enlist tigers to
sell us everything from gasoline to sports teams and breakfast cereal.
despite such tribute, tigers have not fared well at our hands. Having
evolved over millions of years, tigers once ranged from Mesopotamia,
Caucasia and Siberia, across Asia to Indonesia, but were eliminated
from much of this territory.
Tigers are solitary and elusive, so
counting them is difficult. More than 100,000 were believed to have
lived in the wild in the early 20th century. Now only a few thousand
remain, all under serious threat and classified as critically
As India's tigers neared extinction, officials
launched conservation efforts in 1973. But after initial success,
numbers continue to drop due to human population increase, habitat
loss, depletion of prey and illegal hunting. In 2005, Sariska Reserve
in the Indian state of Rajasthan announced that all their tigers had
been killed by poachers. Likewise, by 2009, Panna Nature Reserve in
Madhya Pradesh (“the Tiger State”) had no tigers left.
Russia, where tigers nearly disappeared in the 1940s, conservation laws
allowed them to rebound. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union,
massive logging and poaching of wildlife for the Chinese market meant
disaster for animals.
A major culprit is China, where economic
power and use of tiger parts in traditional medicine is a lethal
combination. Wealthy Chinese consider tiger skins a status symbol,
using them in their homes for decoration. Chinese and Thai businessmen
operate tiger farms as “safari parks” for tourists, breeding the
animals and stockpiling body parts – which is where the real money is.
parts are sold as tonics and magical cures. Claws supposedly solve
insomnia, whiskers relieve toothaches, body fat cures leprosy. A
tiger's penis, believed to increase sexual power, fetches a small
fortune while other body parts are considered aphrodisiacs. (“Tiger” in
Sanskrit is vyaghra .)
Tiger-bone wine, sold openly at Chinese
“safari parks,” costs nearly $200 per bottle as a cure for arthritis
and rheumatism. Although traditional medicine practitioners know these
products lack medical value, and the World Federation of Chinese
Medicine Societies opposes the tiger trade, markets remain strong.
tiger market is part of the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade,
surpassed only by illegal drugs and arms sales. Although poachers may
be poor, traders at higher levels reap huge profits. Corrupt park
guards, police and government officials form networks that are better
organized than conservationists and governments.
The UN General
Assembly sees the wildlife trade as organized crime, but because many
do not consider the wildlife trade a priority, it remains a low-risk,
high-profit form of criminal activity. National and international laws
to protect tigers go unenforced. In 1975 the UN Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species prohibited the tiger trade,
and in 2007 decreed that tigers should not be bred for sale of their
body parts. But the trade continued, and in 2007 China quietly approved
selling “legally obtained” tiger parts.
Tiger farmers claim
commercial farming will reduce poaching, but this rhetoric conceals
self-interest. Farms will not displace trade in wild tigers, because
purchasing animals killed by poachers is cheaper than farming them.
Commercial farms will seek greater profits by promoting consumption, no
doubt calling themselves “green” or “sustainable” operations. Legal
trade only encourages a market for wild tiger parts, considered more
potent thus bringing higher prices.
Proponents contend that
exploiting animals is legitimate, that attitudes cannot change, that
legal trade can be monitored and that bans cannot be enforced.
we know the solutions: preserve habitats, stop resource extraction and
infrastructural development (meaning financial institutions should not
support such development), keep humans away from tigers (which means
relocating people and providing them suitable resources), educate
people about the value and importance of wildlife, stop corruption,
enforce laws and totally ban trade in tiger parts.
thinking? It happened in Tibet, where tiger skins traditionally used
for weddings and festivals were burned in the streets after the Dalai
Lama denounced the practice.
These initiatives need real,
top-level government commitment. They also need re-evaluation of our
relationship with animals generally, something that just might be
inspired by the Year of the Tiger.
John Sorenson is chairman of the Department of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.