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Tiger time in the Sping Thaw Brendan Moyle Apr 24

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Well as part of the last expedition to China we got up north. Very north.  There was still snow on the ground even though it was early spring.  This is one of the times when having a good relationship with the Chinese SFA matters. Got to see a couple of Amur tigers which I was able to photograph.

 

They seem to be enjoying the thaw and the sunshine.

 

 

 

“Trade fuels demand”: Phrases that should be banned Brendan Moyle Nov 28

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There are many phrases that cause me to wince. The oft-used ‘missing-link‘, beloved by newspaper headline writers, creationists and 1950s B-movie writers is one.  Another that is stubbornly popular in conservation literature is the oft-repeated claim that trade will fuel demand for wildlife parts.  This is typically used as a reason why trade in wildlife (or their parts) should not be allowed.

There are of course, legitimate reasons why trade could lead to increases in sales of wildlife parts (both legal and illegal). These are issues like laundering, a conspicuous problem during the 1980s with elephants.  Now, I would really prefer to debate these sorts of real reasons trade generates risks.

Instead we end up going over the same old ground, time after time.  Wildlife apparently is different to other economic products.  The act of making these goods available is sufficient to cause people to want them. Poor McDonalds or the like, have to spend advertising dollars in an effort to get customers into their stores. All wildlife producers have to apparently, is make their stuff available. It practically sells itself.

This is rather counter to our evidence. The trade in rhino horn has been banned since the 1970s, and despite proposals from time-to-time to have a legal trade (a legal harvest could simply remove horn from time-to-time on living animals), we’ve not seen that this has curbed demand. Poaching levels have remained unsustainable, populations of rhinos have been wiped out, and the price has soared from $US500 per kg in the 1980s to $50,000 per kg now.

Now, we don’t really have the counter-factual available here (would rhinos do better with some system of trade?), and the increase in price could also be sustained by the decline in supply.  So let’s have a bit more of a formal look at another example.

The idea behind trade fueling demand could be manifested in a couple of ways.  First, if I increase the supply of wildlife products in one year, this should increase demand (and sales) in the following year.  More people will want these products as their demand has been piqued. So increases in supply should lead to further increases in sales, decreases likewise.

The second way is via prices. If we’re increasing sales, is that because we’ve increased production and the market has cleared at this higher output? Or is it because demand has increased.  Well, a key variable there would be prices.  If prices go up- even as we’re increasing production- this would also imply supply is fueling demand.

So lets have a look at the Louisiana alligator production.  It’s a classic wildlife product, and at one stage subject to unsustainable harvests. It’s also a long data set, as the production and harvest level go back to the early 1970s.  This should be long enough to pick up any trends.

So, first question- does an increase in production in say one year, lead to an increase in production in the following:

Red line- the actual data from the Louisiana alligator market
Green line- the estimated data based using the previous year’s production as the predictor
Blue line- the residuals, the graph of the difference between the actual and estimated values.  The tighter and closer this graph is to the 0-line, the better the fit.

Regression: Farmed Skin Supply

Regression: Farmed Skin Supply

The regression had no significant fit here whatsoever, neither does the previous years supply have any effect on this years.  So this quick and simple test doesn’t support trade fueling demand. The blue-residual line is extremely volatile, reflecting the insignificant fit.

Let’s then consider whether there might be a price effect from this supply.  Again, I want to know if an increase (or decrease) in supply in a previous year will fuel (or correspondingly, reduce) demand in the current year.

Regression: Production and Prices

Regression: Production and Prices

And once again, there’s absolutely no relationship. The quantity supplied in the previous year has no detectable influence on prices. We’re not able to fuel demand here by our supply-decisions.

The third point is that maybe, it’s not that legal trade fuels demand for the farmed (or ranched products), but that it fuels the demand for the wild product. This may better reflect the concern conservationists have.  It is also something we can again test.  Louisiana has wild harvests operating alongside their farmed output. So lets see if our farmed output is affecting our wild harvest levels.

alligator-wild

Again, there’s no relationship. Supply decisions in the farmed industry in a previous year, have no effect on either the price or the output of the wild skins in the current year.

In summary, there’s no good reason to give wildlife a special status.  There are certainly good reasons why a legal trade could increase conservation risks.  But the supposition that it will fuel demand is not one of them. The evidence we have from trade in wildlife products is that the usual market parameters drive demand. There’s nothing unique about wildlife that would cause a departure from this.

One also suspects that the opposition to trade in many cases is based on the charisma of the wildlife involved, rather than inherent conservation reasons.  It’s clear that there’s more opposition to say, trade in rhino parts than there is in alligator or crocodile.

The Cost of Conservation: Tiger mauls two to death Brendan Moyle Nov 24

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Well, the Tiger Summit in St Petersburg has come up with a price tag of $350m to save the tiger. I wish I could be surprised that part of the solution to save the tiger is to spend even more money. I wish I could be surprised that we are starting to evaluate the success of our efforts to save tigers on the basis of meetings held and money spent.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable that we have such a single-minded focus on a single species. Most poachers for example, aren’t tiger poachers. They’re leopard poachers that sometimes take tigers. A wider, more cohesive strategy that looked at all of Asia’s big cat species could be merited. Going after leopard poachers would net in tiger poachers anyway. Targeting tiger poachers just keeps poachers in business as they persist with their hunting of leopards.

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Asian Fishing Cat- Nocturnal Photo

Finally, while we are thinking about $350m and who is going to come up with the money (hat-tip to Leonardo diCaprio for putting $1m into the pot), there is another cost of conserving the tigers. Live tigers mean people are going to die from tiger attacks. This sadly illustrated by the following news.

Tiger kills two in Assam

The attack occurred at the village Habiborongabari in Morigaon district, about 60 km east of Assam’s main city of Guwahati.
First a woman was mauled to death, then a man working in a field. The attack continued with a police official and girl being injured (both reported to be battling for their lives in hospital).

The tiger was eventually shot to death by forest rangers.

Saving tigers isn’t just a matter of good reserve design and controlling commercial poaching. The fundamental problem we face is that a lot of locals who live within, and next to these forests, don’t see these 1/4 ton monsters as cute, fuzzy, conservation icons to be saved. Insisting they tolerate the deaths of family members, children and livestock to save tigers is a big ask.

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.

Tiger Summit Preliminaries Brendan Moyle Nov 18

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The latest Tiger Summit is going to begin in St Petersburg on the 21st of November. This has been heralded as yet another last ditch attempt to prevent the extinction of tigers in the wild. There may be no animal that has received more conservation attention than the tiger, for little actual gain.

The thing about tigers is that there are lots of meetings held regularly and lots of plans get formulated. In India, Indira Gandhi backed an ambitious recovery program called project Tiger back in the 1970s. That was a system of national reserves backed by rangers, all with the focus on sustaining tiger populations. Nonetheless, since the mid 1980s, global tiger populations have shrunk almost unabated. The twin pressures of habitat loss and poaching have been challenging to overcome. Like so challenging, we haven’t overcome them.

There’s probably be a lot of issues this meeting is going to bring up. A lot of these issues won’t be new. While there’s a lot of agreement about the drivers behind the loss of tigers, it’s been much harder to get agreement on any solutions.

One of the differences with this summit has been the continued involved of the World Bank and its Global Tiger Initiative in 2009. This gave some cause for optimism in the conservation community as it offered the hope that funding restraints would be loosened.  Nonetheless, thus did not mean that suddenly tiger conservation projects were being given a blank cheque. And the IUCN was pulled out of the Nepal meeting last year over differences in the ‘management style’ of the World Bank.  For me, that meant being unable to chair one of the sessions on the demand and supply of tiger parts.

So, what are we going to hear out of this summit?

Well, doubtlessly some NGOs are going to insist that poaching and smuggling can be controlled through better law enforcement. Despite the great difficulty we have with infiltrating poaching rings (often because they are based on ethnic and family associations, making outsiders very identifable), this remains a very dangerous assertion.

Tiger poaching and smuggling is near impossible to control through law enforcement. The reasons are:

1) Habitat- tigers and their poachers have ‘cryptic’  lifestyles in rugged terrain. Poachers are rarely caught and it can take years to identify them. They come from hunting cultures that are familiar with the terrain and habitat.

2) Tiger parts are traded in both domestic and international markets. An increased focus on the international side for instance, doesn’t address the domestic side. The Sumatran tiger for instance, is pretty much thratened by local poaching, not international.

3) Tigers are an infrequently smuggled good. There’s about 300 tigers a year (we think) that get poached. The parts get traded all over Asia. It’s not like the cocaine route from Colombia into Florida. There’s not a plane or boat arriving on a regular basis.  Tiger parts are moved infrequently and via many different routes. This makes the whole intelligence gathering to block them much harder.

4) We have appalling intelligence on the participants in the black market. This was brought home again this year at the CITES meeting.  Despite the palpable threat from poaching facing tigers, Governments have gathered very little intelligence on the organisations that poach and smuggle tiger parts.

5) The borders are very big. China’s southern border stretches from Vietnam to Pakistan. Some of Asia’s busiest ports are now in China.  International borders in Asia are crossed regularly by smugglers and poachers. It’s just too big. The USA can’t stop drugs and people moving across the border from Mexico and that border is a fraction of the size of these Asian borders.

So long as we think poaching and smuggling is a problem that can be fixed with better law enforcement, we ignore actually trying to understand these black markets and where they are truly vulnerable.  And it is a policy call that shuts down discussion of other options. This doesn’t serve tiger conservation at all.

Tiger poaching thoughts again… Brendan Moyle Nov 10

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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

Tigers- It’s not getting any easier Brendan Moyle Nov 04

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While I’ve focused a lot on the poaching risks to tigers, the fact is that their small populations make them vulnerable to other risks as well. For instance, one of the tiger reserves I visited in the Hun Chun area of Jilin, had a grand population of two Siberian tigers.

This was brought home recently when a wild Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) was caught in a stuporous state in a village in the Russia.  Russian has most of the world’s wild Siberian (or Amur) tiger population, with numbers ranging between 400 to 500 animals. China has around 20 wild Siberian tigers and North Korea. Well, let’s just say while nobody has really looked, nobody really expects that North Korea will have done any work conserving any relic tiger populations that may be left.

Snapshot of Siberian Tiger- by Author

Snapshot of Siberian Tiger- by Author

The tiger suffered massive systemic infection and starvation, and subsequently died. The autopsy result showed the animal was suffering from a morbillivirus infection (canine distemper) [1]. This is the first documented case of such an infection in the wild Siberian tiger population.  The animal also tested positive for feline panleukopenia and feline coronavirus.

The disease risk in small populations can be catastrophic. Local tiger populations are simply not robust and do not cope with shocks well. This is one area where captive-breeding is actually very useful. It provides a backup population source- a kind of insurance policy against disasters.

References

[1] Kathy S. Quigley, James F. Evermann, Charles W. Leathers, Douglas L. Armstrong, John Goodrich, Neil M. Duncan and Dale G. Miquelle (2010). Morbillivirus Infection in a Wild Siberian Tiger in the Russian Far East.
Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 46(4), pp. 1252-1256