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Save the tiger by mass production?

Scott Tong Sep 11, 2007

Save the tiger by mass production?

Scott Tong Sep 11, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: There is one Chinese export nobody’s found fault with: Giant pandas. And there might soon be another: Tigers. With wild tigers on the brink of extinction, many countries ban the sale of hides and bones. But China is considering lifting its restrictions. It’s part of a free-market approach to conservation that’s novel — and controversial — as our China correspondent Scott Tong tells us.

Scott Tong: Wild tigers may be disappearing, but more than a thousand farm-bred tigers are thriving in western China. And for ten bucks, they’ll entertain you.

This is the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Farm in the city of Guilin. Here, tigers snarl at tourists who are all too happy to be frightened.

They leap through flaming hoops, a la Siegfried and Roy. And they take down live cows, as an emcee gives the play-by-play. All in plain sight.

Tigers as entertainment is clearly a for-profit enterprise. But for the tiger farmers, bigger game comes in smaller pieces. They want to sell the body parts as health tonics. For instance, some consider the most private part an aphrodisiac. And tiger bones are believed to treat arthritis and rheumatism.

Right now tiger trade is banned in China. But the breeders are lobbying the government to allow the controlled sale of cage-bred cats. And they’ve stored hundreds of carcasses on ice, just in case it happens.

Zhang Kejia is with the Nature Conservancy in Beijing.

Zhang Keji [interpreter]: Farmers found it profitable to raise tigers, so they raised more tigers. And now they’re asking the government for policy support.

Chinese farmers have raised 5,000 tigers, and they can breed 1,000 more every year. They argue that if the government creates a legal market for the non-wild tigers, that’ll snuff out the illegal black market for wild tigers.

Barun Mitra: Commerce and conservation are not enemies of each other.

Barun Mitra is with the free-market Liberty Institute. It’s based in New Delhi.

Mitra: We need to out-compete the smugglers and the poachers. Because they are in the economic activity illegally.

The point is to undersell the poachers. That way, tiger breeders can do what Chinese producers do best — mass produce, and then sell to price-conscious consumers.

Mitra: I am looking at the demand in China for tiger products as an opportunity, an opportunity to legalize the market, meet the demand from captive facilities, and take the pressure off the wild.

Mitra says this has worked before, with crocodile leather. Crocodile farms provide legal skins to leather makers, and the wild crocodiles are no longer endangered.

But Judy Mills doesn’t buy the argument. She directs the nonprofit Campaign Against Tiger Trafficking.

Judy Mills: We have the number of tigers we still have left in the wild today because of China’s ban.

Mills says allowing the sale of tiger parts would harm all tigers, especially the wild ones.

Mills: It will reignite demand among more than a billion people, and among those, you will have people who can afford to have the very best, and the very best comes from the wild.

So wild tiger poachers would have an extra incentive. Already, they can fetch $15,000 per kill.

Now, much of this debate hinges on Chinese consumers and what they would buy.

We got our hands on a bottle of tiger bone wine for about $30. The tiger farms have special permission to sell small amounts of it. And we hosted a little tasting with Shanghai investor types.

Man: It doesn’t taste like tiger. It tastes like medicine, but not tiger.

The Chinese government is still considering whether to lift the ban on selling tigers bred in captivity. Key officials are already signaling publicly they probably will. But for public relations sake, it may not happen until after next summer’s Olympics in China, when the world’s spotlight has faded.

In Shanghai, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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