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Posts Tagged poaching

Ivory Crimes: Supply or Demand Shock? Brendan Moyle Apr 22

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One of the unsettled issues with the surge in elephant poaching seen after 2008/9 is explaining why it took off. The scale represents a break from the past.  It seems inexplicable in terms of what we understood the drivers of poaching were.  These were basically either affluence in consumer markets (like Asia) or poor governance in African countries.  Neither of these changed dramatically in the 2008/9 period.

One popular theory advanced by some NGOs and conservationists is that there has been a massive demand shock. It’s claimed demand for ivory has exploded in China after CITES approved the 2008 shipment of stockpiled ivory from 4 African countries to China and Japan.  This explanation has a number of problems.  The first is it’s hard to reconcile it with other events in this era like the Global Financial Crisis.

The second problem is that it doesn’t fit the actual picture of illegal activity we have. Using the data collated from the ETIS we can see that the illegal activity in worked ivory pieces is pretty stable.  The harsh truth that while most seizures are of very small items of ivory, these seizures add up to a small total.  If there had been a demand shock, we’d see the worked ivory following the same trend as the raw.


raw vs worked


The second problem with the demand shock explanation is that these ivory items are simply not for sale. Contrary to what some NGOs may want you to believe, buying illegal ivory hasn’t become a national past-time in China. People aren’t joining queues to buy ivory. One thing we did in our last expedition was just eyeball the ID-cards for ivory-pieces for sale in registered retail stores.  They’re still carrying stocks that are several years old. We used locals to see how easy it was to find certain ivory pieces for sale legally and illegally.  The old chopsticks some small antique dealer may have under his counter, doesn’t actually add up to a lot of ivory.  This is a point that has already been made by the CITES Secretariat.  The numbers we’re getting out of China from a diverse group of organisations is just too low to reconcile with a demand explosion.

The other possibility is what we see with this rapid increase in poaching and raw ivory smuggling, is a supply shock.  There are two important events that have occurred since 2008/9.  The first is that Central Africa has got a lot less stable. One casualty of bitter civil conflicts is elephants. Spending on national parks and wildlife protection collapses, whilst money-hungry armed-groups try to cash in with poaching. That’s one supply-factor that has changed.

The second is that shipping costs after the GFC collapsed. Sending raw ivory from Africa to consumer markets for stockpiling got a lot cheaper. We’re not talking about say a 10 or 20% drop in costs. We’re looking costs that have fallen to less than a third what the used to be.  Nearly all of the illegal activity in the graph above, comes from seizures of raw ivory in shipping containers.

These are major and important events that are inconsistent with the demand-shock explanation. Civil war in Africa isn’t going to an increase in demand in China. Neither is cheaper shipping costs. What we seem to have is a significant supply-shock that criminal organisations are taking advantage of to store more raw ivory in final markets- like Asia.  We’re not seeing it for sale in the streets because it’s being stored and it’s likely not in their interests to be dumping lots of ivory into consumer markets.

One final piece of evidence is the time it takes to make a carving.  Raw ivory hits a production bottle-neck because turning ivory into a carving is a slow process.  Production is basically artisanal.  One thing we explored in China in various factories was production time.  To illustrate, the figure below, roughly 1 kg, would take an experienced carver about 2 months to complete, and an inexperienced carver 4 or 5 months. The throughput of raw ivory into carvings is not a rapid process.


A CWP Photo


 

 

 

Ivory Crimes: Supply or Demand Shock? Brendan Moyle Apr 09

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One of the unsettled issues with the surge in elephant poaching seen after 2008/9 is explaining why it took off. The scale represents a break from the past.  It seems inexplicable in terms of what we understood the drivers of poaching were.  These were basically either affluence in consumer markets (like Asia) or poor governance in African countries.  Neither of these changed dramatically in the 2008/9 period.

One popular theory advanced by some NGOs and conservationists is that there has been a massive demand shock. It’s claimed demand for ivory has exploded in China after CITES approved the 2008 shipment of stockpiled ivory from 4 African countries to China and Japan.  This explanation has a number of problems.  The first is it’s hard to reconcile it with other events in this era like the Global Financial Crisis.

The second problem is that it doesn’t fit the actual picture of illegal activity we have. Using the data collated from the ETIS we can see that the illegal activity in worked ivory pieces is pretty stable.  The harsh truth that while most seizures are of very small items of ivory, these seizures add up to a small total.  If there had been a demand shock, we’d see the worked ivory following the same trend as the raw.

raw vs worked

The second problem with the demand shock explanation is that these ivory items are simply not for sale. Contrary to what some NGOs may want you to believe, buying illegal ivory hasn’t become a national past-time in China. People aren’t joining queues to buy ivory. One thing we did in our last expedition was just eyeball the ID-cards for ivory-pieces for sale in registered retail stores.  They’re still carrying stocks that are several years old. We used locals to see how easy it was to find certain ivory pieces for sale legally and illegally.  The old chopsticks some small antique dealer may have under his counter, doesn’t actually add up to a lot of ivory.  This is a point that has already been made by the CITES Secretariat.  The numbers we’re getting out of China from a diverse group of organisations is just too low to reconcile with a demand explosion.

The other possibility is what we see with this rapid increase in poaching and raw ivory smuggling, is a supply shock.  There are two important events that have occurred since 2008/9.  The first is that Central Africa has got a lot less stable. One casualty of bitter civil conflicts is elephants. Spending on national parks and wildlife protection collapses, whilst money-hungry armed-groups try to cash in with poaching. That’s one supply-factor that has changed.

The second is that shipping costs after the GFC collapsed. Sending raw ivory from Africa to consumer markets for stockpiling got a lot cheaper. We’re not talking about say a 10 or 20% drop in costs. We’re looking costs that have fallen to less than a third what the used to be.  Nearly all of the illegal activity in the graph above, comes from seizures of raw ivory in shipping containers.

These are major and important events that are inconsistent with the demand-shock explanation. Civil war in Africa isn’t going to an increase in demand in China. Neither is cheaper shipping costs. What we seem to have is a significant supply-shock that criminal organisations are taking advantage of to store more raw ivory in final markets- like Asia.  We’re not seeing it for sale in the streets because it’s being stored and it’s likely not in their interests to be dumping lots of ivory into consumer markets.

One final piece of evidence is the time it takes to make a carving.  Raw ivory hits a production bottle-neck because turning ivory into a carving is a slow process.  Production is basically artisanal.  One thing we explored in China in various factories was production time.  To illustrate, the figure below, roughly 1 kg, would take an experienced carver about 2 months to complete, and an inexperienced carver 4 or 5 months. The throughput of raw ivory into carvings is not a rapid process.

A CWP Photo

 

 

 

The dangerous economic ideas acquired by conservationists Brendan Moyle Mar 13

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One thing you quickly find is that many people bring their own ideas of how economics works to the debates on conservation policy. Some of these ideas are quite dangerous and yet, remain part of the folk-economics of conservation.  They are often employed by NGOs and the like.

The first is that legal trade fuels demand for illegal.  Now we do know that legal trade can generate pathways that lead to more poaching, but fundamentally, legal sellers and illegal are in competition. They’re in competition because the products are substitutes. Hermes isn’t going to demand more poached alligator or crocodile leather because they’re buying lots of legal leather. Legal trade doesn’t fuel demand for illegal. It crowds the illegal out (all else being equal).  That’s a big part of why the sustainable, regulated trade in crocodilian skins has crushed the illegal trade.

The caveat is there are pathways where legal trade does sustain illegal. One important is laundering where illegal wildlife products are merged into the market as sold as legal.  But this is a different mechanism to fueling demand. That’s the important point. Legal trade isn’t a panacea or instant solution. But the problems it creates aren’t demand-driven.

The second dangerous idea is that concentrating market power in incumbent sellers is bad for their business. This is nuts. Some of how most enduring conservation problems are a result of concentrating market power in large, criminal organisations. For ivory, we’ve choked back the export of legal ivory to an erratic trickle since 1990.  We have large, organised crime networks involved now. And the latest move to destroy ivory stocked by governments is further concentrating market power with the bad guys.  This is literally the only setting I’ve been in, when people argue and believe that competition will make the incumbents (the bad guys) better off.  By analogy, this would predict that Blackberry and Nokia would be much more profitable after Apple entered the market with the iPhone than before.

We’ve done the same thing for rhino horn. The quasi-legal export of rhino horns (as trophies) out of South Africa to key Asian states was tightened up- so poaching increased. Then as a response, it was banned. And poaching exploded. Concentrating market power in the bad guys is a pretty dangerous step to take if you’ve got nothing to counter their responses with.

The third dangerous idea is that everything must be explained in terms of demand. There is an astonishing neglect of the supply influences on poaching.  A good example is the explanations for the rapidly rising poaching levels of African elephants since 2008-9. A number of NGOs are certain that roughly in this period, middle-class Chinese all took evil pills, and became insatiable, avaricious consumers of ivory products.

Figure 1: Ivory Seizures increase rapidly from 2008-9

Raw Ivory Seizures

If we explore the supply-side then there’s actually two very important changes.  The first is the several Central African states have became pretty unstable and they’re a major source of ivory. Not a lot is being spent on parks management and rangers there, and various groups are cashing in ivory to pay for their warring.

The second is that shipping costs have collapsed. Globally, shipping costs were in the rise in the mid 2000s, reaching a peak in early 2008 before the Global Financial Crisis.  They then collapsed. They haven’t just fallen a little bit. They’ve dropped to about a third of pre-GFC levels.  This matters because the ivory has a unique aspect. It is the only wildlife product that is transported by the ton, in shipping containers. It’s a major part of the supply cost.  It’s just dropped. Indeed, the change is so dramatic, there’s evidence ivory in the early 200os is only been exported in this period.

And this supports a crucial observation. We’re not seeing the volumes of carvings for sale that match this influx.  This is a point the CITES Secretariat has made in its summaries of the evidence. If demand had really exploded to match the influx we seen in Figure 1, then we’d detect that with a big increase in number of retailers, stocking rates and turnover.  And nobody has seen that occur. Yes, demand for ivory is going up, but in line with the growing affluence in China. That’s a steady increase. It’s an important increase.  But it doesn’t come close to matching that surge in supply.

The 25,000 elephant question Brendan Moyle Dec 08

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Poaching levels for African elephants have now accelerated to a point where about 25,000 are being killed a year.  The population in Africa is projected to decline by 20% in the next decade.  This is starting to get people very worried.

The illegal trade in elephants has several important features.  The first is that there is a separation between final consumers of carvings and poachers who procure the tusks.  There is a long supply chain with many parties along the route.  And importantly, many of these act strategically.  They’re thinking about the future, where demand is going and what effect enforcement is going to have.

The second feature is that ivory isn’t consumed in its raw form. It has to be transformed into something of value by carvings.  This process isn’t instant.  For an elaborate and large carving like a Guangzhou dragon-ball this can take months.  The number of skilled carvers is limited and the tools used to carve ivory aren’t sophisticated. There’s a limit to how much can be transformed into carvings.

ivory-carving-1

The third feature is that ivory is durable.  It can be stored for long periods without deteriorating. This may require some environmental safeguards.  In the dry air of Beijing for instance, humidity levels have to be increased.  But other than that, tusks can potentially last for years.  This is why many governments have stockpiles.  Another point is the bad guys have stockpiles too.

One way to look at the illegal trade is to break the seizures down into different categories.  Seizure data has been accumulated globally as part of the ETIS since 1996.  While the weight of seizures is often aggregated, this masks some important differences.  Some guy smuggling a small piece of raw ivory in his suitcase, isn’t the same as the criminal conspiracy shipping four tons of tusks in a container.

What I’ve done here is taken the ETIS seizure data for raw ivory (by weight) and divided it into four categories.  These are the seizures up to less than 10kg (Raw1), the seizures from 10kg but less than 100 (Raw2), the seizures from 100kg but less than 1000, and the seizures that are more than 1000kg.  This isn’t the total amount of ivory being illegal trafficked.  It is a sample based on seizures. I’ve also expressed the data as a two-year moving average to iron out a little volatility.

Raw Ivory Seizures

 

The data graphed above is also stacked so that the top line will measure the total ivory seized while the other lines break it down into proportions.  There were no big seizures in 2007-2008.

What can we see?

Well, the small seizures (less than 10kg) have been pretty stable. They haven’t moved.  The problem facing elephants isn’t the small stuff coming in as suitcases.  These make up the majority of the actual seizures by a negligible amount of the illegal ivory.  This also serves as a useful control. If the increase in recorded seizures was simply down to better reporting and better enforcement, this ought to have increased in line with the other categories.

The second point is really that the big seizures drive the trend. The increase in illegal ivory being trafficked is down to one category getting bigger.  This is the stuff that’s more than 1000kg. It’s the stuff that’s several tons in a shipping container from East or West Africa. We can see that’s taken off from around 2008.

This actually generates an important question. Why is it 25,000 elephants and not 10,000 elephants? The legal demand in China for ivory is about 4 tons per year.  The illegal demand is (we think) much higher. But 10,000 elephants gives (back of the envelope calculation) about 100 tons of raw ivory a year.  25,000 elephants gives 250 tons. It doesn’t seem plausible that this could be absorbed by the markets in China- nor that the legal and illegal factories could transform it into carvings fast enough.

This is a strong indicator that ivory is being hoarded at the moment.  This tells us the bad guys are banking on the US government and many other conservation organisations being wrong. They’re betting on ivory still being in demand in the future and at higher prices. This is kind of scary. I tend to the view that the guys involved in the illegal market have pretty good knowledge of the market. I don’t have the same confidence in the conservation organisations claiming demand is going to decline with stockpile destruction.  If the bad guys are right, destroying legal stockpiles just makes their hoards more valuable. It affirms the poaching spree was the right strategy for them.

 

 

 

Ivory Bust in HK & a question for the economists Brendan Moyle Nov 13

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It’s interesting holding an elephant tusk for the first time.  You’re not quite sure what to expect. But the first thing you notice is that they’re heavy, heavier than I expected. This aspect distinguishes elephant ivory from other wildlife products.  It’s heavy, and it’s going to take up space.  This has to affect the smuggling techniques.

tusks

Last month there was another bust of smuggled ivory in Hong Kong.  There were 189 tusks with an average weight of 4kg each.  The origin of the shipment was (ironically) the Cote d’Ivoire.  West Africa continues to play a dominant role as an export centre of poached ivory.  This was the third major bust by Hong Kong customs this year.  The common denominator is that they’re all shipped, concealed, in containers.

The novel aspect of this shipment is the conspirators were trying to spread their risks this time. Rather than the tusks being on one ship, they came in containers on three different ships.  This suggests the effect of several big busts in late 2012 and continuing to 2013 is increased wariness.

Of the illegal wildlife products I’m familiar with, containers are a technique that I think, specialised for ivory. I can’t think of any other wildlife product that relies so heavily on containers.  So, aside from I think firearms, here’s a question for the economists (or anyone else who knows).  Is there any other illegal product that depends as much on shipping containers for distribution as ivory?

 

 

Grand, empty gestures? What does destroying ivory accomplish? Brendan Moyle Nov 08

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The decision by the US to destroy its stockpile of (6 tons) of ivory is being held up by many as a bold conservation measure for elephants.  This is a puzzle. Destroying ivory is hardly new. Kenya did it publicly in 1989 [1]. This was after their elephant population had plunged from 65,000 elephants to 17,000. Southern African countries who had stabilised or expanded their elephant populations under a regulated trade, regarded it as more of a PR stunt.

African-elephant

The situation with elephants has grown dire. This is not a new point. Once the large stockpiles of ivory accumulated over the 1980s ran down, poaching was always going to increase. Indications of this had set in by the late 1990s. We have been largely unable to stop this trend.

Graph 1: Raw Ivory Interdictions by Weight

elephants

Data from ETIS. Three-year Moving Average

It’s important to note that the graph above is based on interdictions. It is is not the total amount of ivory being trafficked. It is a sample, affected by enforcement effort and chance, of the illegal ivory trade. The trend however is transparent.

We also have a good idea of what is driving the poaching.  The increased affluence in Asia and especially China, is one powerful driver. Ivory has a long tradition of use in East Asia and this cultural dimension makes demand very ‘sticky’. Customary values plus rising incomes create a big demand pull.

There’s also the political instability factor. Ivory is being pumped out of some parts of Africa at a rate that appears in excess of annual consumption in Asia. Civil wars, the shock of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and corruption are helping to supply ivory in a way that’s divorced from final markets. Elephants are being ‘cashed up’ in the illegal market and it’s likely that a lot of it is being stockpiled.

This sadly also reflects another very important change. The era of the freelance, local poacher is over. It is the era of professional and armed gangs, sometimes with military ties (and equipment). The destruction of the illegal market of the 80′s where ivory was laundered into the legal trade, has been replaced by far more menacing, well-organised and equipped conspiracies.

Will the US destruction of its paltry ivory stocks make a difference to any of this? It seems unlikely. Chinese incomes aren’t going to be slowed by this. The guy shooting elephants on the savannahs won’t even be aware of it. Kenya did another big destruction effort in 2011. Poaching kept going up afterwards.

There are two risks though attached to these gestures. The first is it signals that ivory is becoming even more scarce. The signal may not be what the US intends. By signalling to criminal organisations ivory is becoming scarcer, the race to accumulate more in stockpiles may accelerate. I don’t know. It seems like an important question though to have settled before making these gestures.

The second risk is well, the ban could be the wrong strategy. Something devised to counter the black market of the 1980s may in fact, be redundant. A regulated trade may be the way forward. Again, I don’t know. I think anyone who does think they know what the solution is, doesn’t understand the problem so well. But it’s plausible, given that regulated trade did work in the Southern African countries.

So if we decide that we need to ramp up competition against the smugglers, that we need to say, dump a lot of ivory into these markets to depress prices, it’s going to be a challenge to do so, when we don’t that ivory to try.
Perhaps we need a few less grand gestures and a bit more evidence-based policy for conserving elephants?

[1] New York Times 1989

A Tale of Two Rhinos Brendan Moyle Nov 04

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One of the challenges in modern conservation is agreeing on what conservation is.  There is a widely held belief that conservation is about reserves, it’s about protecting wildlife and it’s about banning their use. But most wildlife doesn’t live in reserves.  Many endangered species are in developing countries. They don’t have a lot of resources to put into conservation. Corruption and weak institutions make it harder.

white-rhino

What this means is porting over a Western conservation management strategy to other countries hasn’t worked out so well. One might even argue that it doesn’t even work so well in NZ. We can’t conjure up enough resources to control the invasive pests that ravage our native ecosystems. Developing countries struggle to treat conservation as a money sink.

In practice, conservation means working with people with diverse values.  They won’t agree on what conservation means. For Inuit in Canada, conservation means being able to co-manage polar bears and hunt some. It works. Polar bear numbers have trended upwards. In Papua New Guinea, the estuarine crocodile is sustainably harvested. It works. Numbers have risen under this regime. This is a place where reserves and enforcement are to put diplomatically, challenging to implement. The industry and the local villagers agree on the need to conserve crocodiles, basically because they’re worth money. That works to curtail poaching and enhance habitat.

This conflict between what some people think conservation is, and what it actually is, is tragically illustrated with the two rhino species. The black rhino Diceros bicornis used to be abundant, with a range that extended up into the horn of Africa. There was still an estimated 60,000 black rhinos in 1960. Numbers have collapsed despite an international trade ban in 1976 and the use of an orthodox conservation approach.

Trends in Rhino Populations

Trends in Rhino Populations

Source: Michael ‘tSas-Rolfes

The white rhino has undergone the reverse trend (up until very recently). From very low numbers in the 1960s, numbers of white rhinos have overtaken black. The difference was a more encompassing conservation approach. There was a greater willingness to undertake translocations. Management was shared between the state, local communities and private owners.  In South Africa, 25% of the white rhinos are privately owned.  This included trophy hunting.  Again, while not everyone agrees that hunting has a place in conservation, and many find it abhorrent, the result is more rhinos.

The reason rhinos are in decline is poaching. This is now at catastrophic levels. Two to three rhinos on average, are killed each day. 2013 could see 1000 rhinos killed by poachers. Private game parks in South Africa are considering getting out of rhinos completely because of the security risks and costs.

The reason rhinos are poached are for their horns. The horns are largely keratin and grow back. This is partly why the dehorning experiments started in 1989 (with Namibia) failed. Nonetheless, as Biggs et al (2013) argue in the journal Science [1], the economics of farming rhinos stacks up well. Horn can be humanely and regularly shaved off the animal. This would get 8 times as much horn as a one off killing by a poacher. Here is a product we can supply, whose demand has remained resolutely high despite the trade-bans, without having to kill any rhinos. It’s worth debating if the current strategy is delivering what we want for rhinos, and whether trying something new is warranted.

[1] Biggs, D., Courchamp, F., Martin, R., Possingham, H. P. Legal Trade of Africa’s Rhino HornsScience 339 1038-1039 (2013).

 

Looking the wrong way: legal ivory market not linked to illegal Brendan Moyle Feb 12

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This piece has already appeared on the NZ Herald Opinion page.

My main concern here is to highlight that the legal market appears to be pretty well insulated from the illegal.

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I visited China for a research project on the ivory trade in January. It took two years of groundwork first. China is not an easy place to get data from – you just can’t drop in and start investigating.

And, rather than gathering rumours and stories from the fringes of the legal market, which seems to be the case in many international media reports, my colleague and I got access to other parts of the supply chain. The evidence began pointing away from the legal market as a catalyst for the illegal trade of ivory.

Ivory Carving- Southern Style. The butterflies are also carved from ivory.

 

I’m a wildlife economist, but first a conservationist. Like all conservationists, I’m extremely concerned at the rate at which elephants are being poached in Africa, but it concerns me when I see inaccurate stories. You can’t fight the black market trade in wildlife unless you understand how it operates – and the legal ivory trade is not the right place to focus conservation efforts.

In a major ivory factory in Beijing, we looked at the workstations. There were 16 in all. In 1990, before the CITES ban on international ivory sales, the factory had 800 staff, but the ban decimated the legal ivory carving industry in China.

China legally purchased 62 tonnes from the existing ivory stockpile in 2008, and by that year there were only eight staff and one master carver left. Staff levels have since expanded to 16. Most were technicians in their third year of training. Depending on their complexity, pieces would take anywhere between two months and two years to complete.

By weight, about 90 per cent of the registered ivory is made into unique pieces with specific photo-IDs. The scope of the problem of resale of small generic pieces is unknown, but the legal trade is simply unable to absorb the tonnes of ivory being smuggled from Africa. The registration system tracks raw ivory through to the final product and cross-checks each stage for weight gains. Factories and shops are inspected regularly and sometimes covertly, several times a year.

Ivory prices depend on many variables, such as size and grade, the quality of the carving and the reputation of the carver. It’s impossible to detect claimed dramatic price rises for ivory. Prices are what we describe as very noisy. None of the suppliers we interviewed expect overall prices to rise. Other goods, like jade, are preferred for investment over ivory as they’re showing attractive price increases.

The legal ivory system in China is a small industry, with a productive output strongly limited by the lack of qualified carvers. It’s subject to monitoring and inspections that make laundering risky. It’s not a competitive market, as entry is restricted and firm numbers are low. This suits the incumbent firms as it inflates their prices and their profits.

They have no enthusiasm to expand output as this would cause prices to drop. The small size of the industry and the slow output cycle means they cannot absorb large volumes of ivory.

The legal market caters to a clientele of informed, repeat customers after quality pieces, which distinguishes it from the illegal market where we saw generally cruder and smaller carvings which could be pumped out by less skilled carvers, items of less value to serious collectors.

The ivory sale to China in 2008 put money back into elephant conservation in the four southern African countries. On-going trade may be sustained by natural deaths and culls in Africa. The legal market is insulated from the illegal market at several levels. Blaming the legal trade for elephant poaching is simplistic, wrong and a threat to the conservation gains the industry has yielded. It is also a perverse distraction because we need to focus on the real causes of poaching.

The Myanmar Connection Brendan Moyle Nov 22

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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

Tiger Tips for Reporters Brendan Moyle Nov 19

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In view of the Tiger Summit starting soon in St Petersburg, I thought a few pointers for reporters wanting to write stories on tigers might help :)

Okay, number 1. White tigers are not a subspecies of tiger. They are a genetic mutant that is thrown up in all subspecies from time-to-time. Siberian- or Amur- tigers, are not in fact, naturally white. They’re just a bit bigger than other subpecies.

Number 2, tigers aren’t being poached for their aphrodisiac properties. Traditional Chinese medicine is not a synonym for wacky impotence cures. Tigers are poached for many reasons. The skins are widely traded throughout Asia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tiger bone is used as an ingredient for pharmaceuticals used to treat bone diseases. Other countries in Asia, like Vietnam, attribute medicinal qualities to tiger parts.

Number 3, India isn’t losing their tigers to TCM markets in China. Every analysis done of the tiger parts seized by smugglers out of India, are almost completely dominated by tiger skins. Bengali tigers out of India are supplying black markets in the skin trade.  Interception data from China shows that most bones come from the Indo-Chinese subspecies.  So they’re coming out of countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Number 4, consumption of tiger parts is not wide-spread. There are maybe 300 tigers a year than are poached in Asia. There are a lot of people who live in Asia. 300 tigers doesn’t go very far.

Number 5, education campaigns sound very grand, but let’s be honest. We don’t have a message for consumers in China. They’re buying tiger parts at great cost (a complete tiger is about $US50,000), at some risk (20 years in a Chinese prison up to the death penalty) and they certainly know that tigers are endangered. Nobody really has any idea what education message is going to work on this core.

Number 6, there is no proven preference for wild tiger parts by Chinese consumers. First up, we’re getting leakage out of zoos and captive-facilities in China (and elsewhere)- and by leakage we mean that tigers are being either stolen or sold illegally. People’s actions speak louder than words. The second is, nobody is actually surveying black-market customers. We’re only doing market surveys of people in general. We’re not surveying black-market customers because, nobody can actually find any. At the moment, the attested preference for wild tiger parts is akin to me having a preference for a Mercedes-S series car over a Toyota Lexus. But I’m not in the market for either. So my preferences don’t really count.

Number 7, Every international meeting promises great things for tigers. Nonetheless, the history of tiger conservation is littered with projects that have failed to achieve their outcomes. That’s why we don’t have many left. Please retain some objectivity and skepticism. Ask some hard questions.