China has a staggering 1.3 billion people. But throughout all of Asia, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild.
Even with a small percentage of Chinese citizens coveting tiger products in traditional Chinese medicine, there is enormous pressure on the declining species and subspecies. Tigers are illegally killed in Asian countries where they live, and the body parts are then smuggled to China.
© HSI/Teresa Telecky
To address this problem, the government of China has encouraged people to breed tigers on a commercial scale. Over the past two decades, several wealthy entrepreneurs have established industrial tiger breeding facilities or “farms.” Although to its credit China banned the domestic trade in tiger parts in 1993 and removed tigers from the official list of traditional medicine ingredients, the law is not effectively enforced and the government continues to hand out tiger breeding permits.
Now, not surprisingly, breeders who have been stockpiling tiger carcasses in freezers for the past 15 years—in the hope that eventually the trade will reopen and they can sell tiger parts legally—are pressuring the Chinese government to rescind the ban.
Chinese government officials now publicly point to the continued decline of wild tiger populations as evidence that China’s domestic trade ban has failed and should be rescinded. The officials have also balked at a decision by a United Nations treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora that they should close down their tiger farms.
The ban has substantially reduced the use of tiger-based medicines, and recent research shows that demand is down in China and that the public is generally aware of the issue. Even more tigers would be killed if trade in tiger parts resumes and the use of tiger-based traditional Chinese medicine were legal. It would dramatically increase threats to wild tigers, whose parts are preferred over captive-raised tigers and whose killing is far less expensive than the cost of raising a captive tiger.
When the Olympics close, we must and will do what we can to keep the world’s focus on the threat to wild tigers and the misguided tiger-breeding enterprises in China. We will marshal forces to preserve the current ban, knowing that to lift it would deal a death blow to the species.