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One of the side events to the CBD meeting in Nagoya was a tiger conservation event. I’m going to assume everyone knows by now that tigers are in deep, deep trouble (form a conservation perspective). Their wild population is now estimated to be about 3200 animals, where was a century ago it was an estimated 100,000 animals.

The tiger conservation event got a press release: Law enforcement essential if last tigers are to be saved

Now the basic substance of this, is the belief that tiger smugglers and poachers can be effectively countered through better law enforcement.  The problem really is that we just don’t know this. In fact there are some good reasons why law enforcement finds it very hard to deter poachers.

The first is the basic extrapolation argument. There’s been a number of border intercepts of tigers and tiger parts recently. Some bones were detected in the luggage of a ‘foreigner’ entering China in Hunchun by the Russian border. A tiger cub was intercepted at in Thailand. And in NZ a passenger was detected smuggling in an alleged tiger penis.

While this gives some scope for optimism, the fact is we’re not actually catching the poachers.  A lot of the poachers come from hunting communities in Asia, and are quite adept at their covert poaching.  Some of them have been at this poaching game for years and years. So while we’re getting some couriers, we’re not yet busting open any major conspiracies. And a lot of tiger parts never cross international borders- they get traded domestically within the range states.

Your second problem is this presumption that smugglers won’t react to an increase in border security at international checkpoints. The borders in Asia across range states are large and extensive. Yunnan is widely recognised as a major entry point into China of all sorts of wildlife parts. It’s also an entry point for drugs out of the Golden Triangle. The reason is simple. It’s a big, rugged border with lots of communities who have been trading across it for centuries.  The gaps are all over the place. If you increase vigilance at airports, then it’s going to be buses and trains and cars and boats that are used to smuggle tiger parts.

There are other ways smugglers can evade increased law enforcement. One of these is to process the tiger parts into medicine in South East Asia, then export it.  Once it’s processed into a type of medicine or tonic, then distinguishing from other products becomes much harder.

Assuming therefore, that smugglers are not going to react to better international border security is not one we should be betting the survival of the tiger on. The participants in these black markets already have a suite of strategies available to evade increased law enforcement activity.

Now, it is however sadly true that law enforcement has not been particularly effective against tiger poachers to date. Some of that stems to poor cooperation and poor intelligence gathering. Some of it stems from corruption and poor resources. So I won’t argue the point we can do more with law enforcement, and we can do better with law enforcement. I’m more concerned that the assumption that better law enforcement is the key to the survival of the wild tiger is rather heroic. And if this assumption gets in the way of exploring other strategies to combat poachers, then it’s not going to be helping out tigers all that much.

Tiger snapshot- Harbin, China