The tiger is seriously threatened with extinction in the wild. Threats to wild tigers arise from loss of tiger habitat, depletion of tiger prey, tiger-human conflict, and poaching (illegal killing by humans) for body parts such as skins (used for ornamental purposes) and bones (used for medicinal purposes). Poaching currently constitutes the most immediate threat to wild tigers (Damania et al 2008).
International commercial trade in tiger parts is illegal in accordance with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and domestic trade is also illegal in key range states and consumer countries, such as China. Notwithstanding domestic trade bans, large numbers of tigers have been maintained and bred in captivity, and today more tigers survive in captivity than in the wild.
In recent years, there have been calls to legalize domestic trade of tiger products within China, to meet the continuing demand for body parts with a supply generated from existing captive breeding facilities (i.e. “tiger farming”). These calls have stimulated fierce reaction, and a polarized debate has emerged over the effect such action may have on the remaining wild tiger populations.
The two opposing arguments are based on the following propositions:
- Tiger farming will help to conserve wild tigers. A legal trade in farmed tiger products would go some way to satisfying the demand for tiger bone medicine (and other products), which would in turn have the effect of reducing incentives to poach wild tigers.
- Tiger farming will doom wild tigers to extinction. A legal trade in farmed tiger products would stimulate demand further and provide an increased threat to wild tiger populations.
As an extension of the second argument, the World Bank and numerous environmental groups have called for the closure of China’s large captive breeding centres. They view the continued presence of these apparent tiger farms as a threat to wild tiger conservation efforts, for two reasons. First, there is some evidence of “leakage” of tiger products from stockpiles of deceased animals – i.e. product appears to be entering the domestic market illegally in contravention of the existing trade ban. Second, the mere existence of these facilities is regarded as sending an ambiguous message to the market if the intention is to “shut down” trade once and for all.
At the time of writing, China is resisting appeals to close its captive breeding centres. Significant captive tiger populations also continue to exist (and are being further developed) in other countries.
The current situation is therefore one of policy deadlock. Neither of the opposing arguments is proven, wild tiger numbers continue to decline, and there is continuing evidence of poaching and illegal trade. Is the status quo failing because of the trade ban, because of the continued existence of large captive breeding centres or for entirely other reasons? Is there any way in which the status quo can be changed to improve the outlook for wild tiger populations?
In an attempt to answer these questions, this paper considers the opposing arguments in some depth, reviewing and analysing their underlying logic and assumptions. Our objective is to move the whole tiger farming debate forward, improve overall understanding of the issues, identify fallacious claims and suggest critical areas for future research.