Based on our analysis, we conclude that most recent critiques of the potential of tiger farming have failed to present the issues in an even-handed way. They typically overstate the effectiveness of the trade ban approach and underestimate the associated risks. They also dismiss the potential of tiger farming as a conservation tool by attacking simplistic “supply-side” arguments, without considering how such an approach could be nuanced to cope with the complexities of the tiger product markets.
Our analysis suggests that the potential of eliminating illegal trade in tiger products is very low, due to persisting price-inelastic demand. Furthermore, attempting to eliminate all trade would appear to be a futile objective anyway, as illegal trade from captive sources may actually reduce pressure on wild populations. Instead of aiming to eliminate trade, conservationists should focus more directly on reducing tiger poaching to sustainable levels.
The apparent residual demand profile for tiger bone (and other products) suggests that poaching pressure will continue to threaten wild tigers. The most effective way to address this threat is through appropriate local, in situ measures that aim to prevent poaching before it actually takes place. Such measures may range from direct anti-poaching (e.g. patrols), through indirect anti-poaching (e.g. informant systems) to other indirect measures that address the livelihoods of local people and provide them with postive economic incentives to conserve.
After-the-fact measures such as enforcement of trade bans suffer from two shortcomings. First, the tiger is already dead when the smuggler or trader is caught. Second, the further away from wild tiger populations and the potential source of poaching, the greater the possibility of intercepting trade from captive sources.
We note that the recent papers by Damania et al (2008) and Walton et al (2010) also prioritize in situ measures (“site-based protection”), while highlighting the continuing shortfall of funding required ($35 million) for such measures to be effective (to protect 42 source sites with 70% of the remaining wild tiger population). In addition, they call for demand reduction measures, an approach reinforced by Broad and Damania (2009) and Wasser and Jiao (2010) and the Global Tiger Recovery Program (Global Tiger Initiative 2010a), but there is no indication of how much such campaigns would cost to effectively and sustainably reduce the threat from poaching, nor where the additional funding for this would come from.
In our opinion, there is limited scope for improving the trade ban approach. Whether this approach ultimately works for wild tiger conservation depends largely on a change in Chinese cultural attitudes and traditions. Experience with persistent demand and trade in other markets suggests that no realistically achievable improvement in enforcement can work without cultural acceptance driving changes in consumer preferences. It is unclear to what extent this can be achieved with “demand reduction” approaches.
As long as the ban continues to fail, a precautionary approach implies leaving other options open, including that of legally supplying tiger products from captive populations. This implies retaining a sufficiently robust captive population in reserve. Contrary to some claims, we find no evidence that the current existence of China’s tiger farms actually threatens wild tiger populations; in fact, a certain amount of product “leakage” may even be helping them.
Our analysis also suggests that the option of carefully-regulated commercial tiger farming, while unlikely to be a panacea, deserves further investigation. Previous critiques of the farming option have overstated the potential risks, by addressing simplified theoretical propositions rather than a more carefully considered practical plan, which has never been promulgated. To be credible, such a plan would need to address issues such as the effective separation of legal and illegal markets (through the use of certification and other methods) and ideally demonstrate direct benefits to conservation (by, for example, incorporating side-payments to fund anti-poaching measures).
Moving toward a legal trading regime is not without risk, especially if the transition is handled inappropriately. Immediate full relaxation of the existing trade ban is inadvisable and would be politically unacceptable to certain range states and other constituencies. Incremental measures such as clinical trials and carefully monitored one-off sales provide alternative ways of testing the market and potentially relieving excess demand pressure (see Bulte, Damania and Van Kooten 2005). However, even one-off sales would need to be planned and undertaken cautiously, with due consideration to possible strategic behavioural responses from existing illegal operators and market participants.
We conclude with the following specific recommendations for policy and research.