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One of the important outcomes of the Kathmandu World Tiger Workshop, was the inability of some NGOs and governments to persuade China to give up tiger farming. The pressure has contined after the meeting. WWF has contributed a youtube video claiming that tiger farms are a ‘ticket to extinction’ (threat to wild tigers). The Chinese stance has been pretty consistent over the last few years.

First, the Chinese no longer believe that demand for tiger parts can be driven low enough to deter poaching. They might have believed this was possible in the mid-1990s, but acceleration in tiger poaching after they introduced their domestic ban has made them skeptics. An important point is that there are other conservationists who are also skeptics. Not everyone believes that the domestic ban has helped.

Second, they don’t believe that their farms generate demand for tiger teeth or claws in Indonesia, tiger meat in Vietnam and tiger skins in Kashmir and Tibet. Evidence from illegal activity within China prints a fairly clear picture. Smuggling and detection of illegal traffic of wild tiger parts occurs away from regions with tiger farms. It is proximate to regions that border range states. Nobody in China is inclined to believe that Traditional Chinese Medicine markets drive demand for bengali tiger skins (India’s bulk ‘illegal’ export). Most interdictions of tiger bone originate out of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (of Indo-Chinese tigers).

In short, the black market for tiger parts is diffuse and widely separated. The failure of the conservation strategy to save tigers isn’t caused by China. Rather, a strategy that makes tigers worth $US50k to criminals is. Given that there are lots of different markets for different tiger products, there’s no single driver of poaching- nor is there any single solution.

Okay, so what should we be talking about to save tigers.

First, we need to be talking about supply-side approaches. The odds of us getting less than 300 people a year in Asia to want a fresh, poached tiger, is vanishingly remote. Demand-side measures aren’t going to kick in fast enough. It didn’t work with prohibition and alcohol- it doesn’t seem to work with wildlife.

Supply-side approaches mean things like trans-locations, successful re-wilding projects and, dare I mention it, tiger farms. Ex situ methods are becoming increasingly important as there are few safe areas left in Asia for tigers. That means, there are few reserves that are big enough, with enough prey items and where the local human population is tolerant of these big carnivores. Ex situ may be just second best solutions, but we don’t seem to be able to implement a first-best solution in most range states.

The second is losing this whole focus on tigers. The reality is that most poachers take many times more leopards, otters and other similar species. Most tiger poachers are really leopard poachers. So you need to concentrate interdiction and enforcement against leopard poachers. That way you will net in tiger poachers anyway. Ignoring the plight of some of these other species because they are not as charismatic as tigers, doesn’t help any of these targeted species.

Third, no-one has beaten an illegal market by concentrating at the consumer-end of the supply chain. The best way is to tackle the source. The reason (especially for wildlife) is that poachers tend to be geographically specific. They live close to, or inside reserves. With tigers especially, the cooperation of local people is crucial to the illegal network. It’s just more efficient to put resources into enforcement at this end. Conversely consumers of wildlife products are often harder to detect because they are dispersed (in different countries) and often resourceful enough to conceal their activities for long periods.

For tigers, this is a lot easier said than done. Not everybody regards tigers with great fondness, and proximity tends to increase their pest status. When Indira Ghandi launched Operation Tiger (via a system of dedicated reserves), locals who lived next to or inside the reserves were aghast. When told that tourists would provide compensation against stock losses (and loss of family members), someone pithily remarked that if tourists wanted to see tigers, the tigers should be released in Hyderabad.