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Associated Press released this story in the weekend.

Wildlife group targets Myanmar-China tiger trade

BANGKOK (AP) – Wildlife trafficking officials say they have reached a preliminary agreement with an ethnic minority group in Myanmar to close down markets where hundreds of poached tigers from across Asia are sold for use in purported medicines and aphrodisiacs in China.

This is in line with my work in China in 2007-08, including a sojourn in the most southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Local minorities are often involved in the tiger poaching markets. Myanmar is within the range of both the Indo-Chinese and Bengalo subspecies, but the political situation has made conservation work there challenging.

With nearly a third of all tiger-smuggling incidents occurring in Yunnan, it was quickly apparent that the tigers under most threat from poaching were Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam [1].  The Indo-Chinese makes up the bulk of the intercepted bone supplied into Traditional Chinese Medicine Markets. [1] This was at odds with what I was assured in early 2007, that India was the major supplier of tiger parts into the Chinese medicine markets. Sadly, most facts about the black market in tiger parts in Asia you read on the web, are made up.

The article refers to a TRAFFIC study on tigers where it was noted that the Wa people were operating quite visible and open markets in big cat parts. It cites observing parts of more than 400 big cats (tigers, leopards) being traded in the last decade. Chinese traders were also coming to the area to consume various wild animals including tiger-bone wine.

This underscore a lot of the problems we’ve had in Asia. The areas where tigers live are also areas where a lot of ethnic minorities.  A lot of these minorities don’t get on very well with the Government. Sometimes it’s because government efforts to create reserves destroys hunting opportunities. That tends to annoy groups who are traditional hunters. This prompts them to become very adept poachers instead. In India for example, the Bawariya and Behliya tribes are involved in a lot of wildlife poaching [1]

In Myanmar the Wa people have conspicuously bad relationships with the military government. It’s so bad the Wa run a semi-autonomous region with their own army of their own within Myanmar (next to the Thai border). Part of the conservation deal here has been to get agreement with the Wa people to suppress this market in cat parts.

So, what are the sorts of tiger conservation lessons can we draw from this?

Well, first and foremost, a lot of Western conservationists need to lose the idea that local peoples who love to and around big cats, want to preserve them. That’s usually a low priority or indeed, unwelcome. Having big 1/4 ton carnivores roaming around their forest communities is not something people get enamoured with. Tigers kill valuable livestock and people still.

The second is seriously, not all the tiger parts are being consumed in China. Tigers have been used for their parts all through Asia and local people’s have developed all sorts of uses. The Wa region has gone through several hundred big cats that we know of. Different Asian cultures use all sorts of different parts- the teeth, claws, skin, meat, bones and sometimes penises [1].

Third, again, India isn’t a big player in the traditional Chinese medicine markets. It’s a big player for skins. The big 2007 bust in Tibet  recovered 32 tiger skins, 579 leopard skins and 665 otter skins [1].  India isn’t losing tigers to Chinese medicine markets yet. They’re losing them to skin markets in central Asia. Of course, that may change. It’s likely only a matter of time before the Tibetan smuggling rings start diversifying and crossing into supplying bones in the east. It’s just a matter of patiently establishing those networks.

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References

[1] Moyle, B (2009). The black market in China for tiger products. Global Crime 10:1, 124-143