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As expected, the newspapers are starting to pickup news about the tiger conservation conference in Kathmandu (Stuff Link).

This is largely a World Bank initiated effort, as IUCN pulled out of the planning a few months ago. Relations with the World Bank had deteriorated and with the loss of IUCN, my participation also went. Still, I understand that Steve Broad from TRAFFIC cited my research and was kind enough to mention some of our discussions at the start of the meeting. You have to wonder though at a meeting that’s looking at tiger poaching that couldn’t get the only expert on the Chinese black-market in tiger-bone present. (In case you’re wondering, that’s me).

The political maneuvering began long before the conference. Some conservation organisations, including the Environmental Investigation Agency, continue to blame China for a lack of enforcement. But the root problem they are so often focused on the West (i.e. Tibet) that they ignore the fact that China has arrested- and convicted- more tiger part conspiracies than the rest of Asia combined. In a recent case where a Tibetan conspiracy was caught with 32 tiger skins, sentences ranged from 20 years to death.

In contrast, Sansar Chand operated in India for almost 30 years, and sent hundreds of tiger skins and thousands of leopard skins to Tibet. He got a sentence of five years, was then released an appeal, whereupon he vanished. He was later recaptured, but the softness of this Indian approach leaves the Chinese aghast. In Sumatra we know that dozens of tigers get poached every year and end up in local markets (there is no really big Chinese connection here). There’s been one arrest in the early 2000s. And that was of a conspiracy that operated for ten years. Expecting to defeat poaching by enforcement at the end of the supply chain has never been done with any animal before. You beat poaching by working in the start of the supply chain, not the end.

In general the line that the problem is that China is too soft isn’t being swallowed by governments. I guess it’s for the consumption of the general population.

This though all highlights the big problem. You can’t stop tiger poaching through law enforcement. The networks that move wildlife products through have existed for hundreds of years. They exploit the porous borders (mountains and forests and river valleys) to move products, often within the same ethnic communities. They can do so almost invisibly. And it is a hard product to stop because it moves in small quantities and irregular shipments.

What we really know about poaching is that it is done by locals. It is the people who live near or amongst tigers that poach tigers. It is not foreign conspirators.

The reason is simple. Local people do not have the same fondness for tigers as people in the West. Tigers kill people and livestock. Bangladesh alone estimates that 40-50 people a year are killed by tigers. If we expect poor rural people in Asia to sacrifice family members and livestock willingly to save the tiger, then the tiger is doomed. Poverty is one of the important drivers of extinction here.

Note that this would probably worsen if local people realised what conservation plans are. We’re not intending to stabilise tiger numbers. The conservation plan is to double the number of tigers.