Wanted, Dead or Alive: Reflections on the economic justifications surrounding China’s tiger farms

What is the best way to protect tigers in the wild? This is a question that continues to challenge conservationists and wildlife managers alike and, as yet, there appears to be little consensus as to what the answer might be. What is clear, however, is that there remains a downward trajectory in tiger numbers across their geographical range and that without a concerted effort on the part of all actors involved in managing these big cats, they may soon be consigned to the status of extinction.

»  Tiger Fur Texture Closeup of animal fur  »  Uploaded by sh0dan (|) on Aug 2, 2005     Usage Royalty free
Tiger skins reach high prices on the black market

While the conventional conservation community cling on valiantly to their long-held orthodoxies, pressure is increasingly being exerted on them by advocates of market-based solutions seeking to change the terrain of wildlife protection moving forward. Here, the wisdom of blanket trade bans is being questioned and directions such as wildlife farming promoted as a viable alternative. This is undoubtedly a controversial approach, exemplified by the existence of a network of privately-operated, state-sanctioned tiger farms across China. These industrial breeding facilities were introduced initially to provide a sustainable source of tiger-based products to service the lucrative market in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). As these farms began to expand their coverage, however, it became evident that trade in tigers for TCM purposes was exerting significant pressure on the species, accelerating its depletion in the wild.

As a result, the global community, under the authority of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), began to apply pressure on China to enact a domestic ban to outlaw all trade in tiger parts and derivatives, including products derived from its captive stocks. Concerned by the threat of potential sanctions, the Chinese government submitted to pressure in 1993, introducing appropriate legislation to curb the trade. Suddenly, overnight the value of the tiger farms plummeted, prompting some owners to threaten to close down their enterprises with immediate effect, leaving their tigers to starve to death. Logically, it could have been envisaged at this juncture that the Chinese authorities would need to intervene and begin a phased closing down of the farms, but this never happened. Instead, there has been a massive expansion during the intervening period, exacerbating concerns that trade remains widespread, albeit operating beneath the official radar. The Chinese have continually denied any wrongdoing in this regard and have instead engineered new justifications for the farms’ existence. Rather than the pursuit of trade, they argue, these facilities are being operated for the purposes of tourism, education, conservation and research.

Today, the total population of tigers in captivity in these farms is estimated to be between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals. The costs of feeding a single tiger per year is thought to be around US$ 2,000, adding up to an annual, conservative estimate of between US$ 10-12 million just to keep them alive. Add to this the costs of staffing and the maintenance of facilities and it is difficult to make the sums fit with the argument that such farms remain profitable enterprises without the trade option being exercised. A further implausibility here surrounds the fact that there are currently over 200 such farms in existence and only a handful of these are large enough to attract significant tourism interest.

By John Ingham, Environment Editor of Expree.co.uk
By John Ingham, Environment Editor of Expree.co.uk

In light of these concerns, there have been a series of undercover ‘sting’ operations undertaken by the world’s media, providing compelling evidence that trade continues to thrive despite the existence of the legal ban. So, what has changed in the interim? Why does the global community appear to be less inclined to pressure China to comply with its international responsibilities? The answer to this is perhaps obvious – money. Since 1993, few people on the planet can have failed to notice the elevation of China as one of the world’s economic powerhouses. As the prominent Indian politician from the independence era, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar observed so many years ago that “where ethics and economics come into conflict, victory is always with economics”. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the world’s governments show less appetite for any fresh conflict with China, particularly if this is associated with what they inevitably view to be a minor issue when weighed against the realities of international commerce.

Small pens house tigers. Image from Environmental Investigation Agency

This inactivity, however, has undoubtedly contributed to a growing confidence on the part of tiger farming advocates to not only continue to justify their existence but also to raise the issue of a unilateral lifting of the trade ban. CITES has arguably been hamstrung as a result, spending more of its time trying to retain the status quo rather than seeking to effect any change in the Chinese stance on tiger farming. What has emerged from this continuing stalemate has been a complete absence of common ground in which meaningful dialogue can take place, an issue that manifested itself most visibly (and audibly) at the International Tiger Symposium held in Kathmandu in 2007. Here, among participants from twelve tiger range countries, the Chinese delegation included representatives from the tiger breeding facilities, a move seen by the NGOs particularly as being inflammatory to the aims of the event which focused on the promotion collaboration and cooperation between range countries in the protection of tigers. The atmosphere engendered by the presence of these breeding centre owners and managers meant that the agenda was dominated instead by the tiger farming controversy. The Chinese delegation reacted to what they viewed as aggressive questioning by the western contingent and the event descended into chaos as physical scuffles broke out among the audience. This conflict presaged a period in which Chinese pressure to lift the trade ban became ubiquitous not only in CITES discussions but increasingly in the world’s media.

The Chinese government, in an attempt to garner support for a resumption of trade from its breeding centres, invited a select group of ‘experts’ from around the world to visit its tiger farms in 2010. It was the composition of this expert group, however, that raised the most eyebrows, particularly after the raft of enthusiastic responses that subsequently emerged from the invitees. Far from being drawn from the tiger conservation movement, the assembled party was dominated by economists and what emerged from the visit was essentially an economic justification for the potential role of tiger farms in challenging an increasingly pervasive illegal trade network. It is perhaps at this juncture that a brief summary of these arguments is required.

Advocates of tiger farming base their beliefs firmly within the camp of free market economics, arguing that presently the wild tiger is assigned no discernible value and, as such, it is proving difficult to protect. Utilising a simplistic supply-side stance, the main tenet of their argument surrounds entry into the existing black market of a legal source of captive-bred products to reduce the unit price of similar products illegally procured from the wild. Saturating the market with legal, certified tiger products, the argument proceeds, will make poaching less profitable and increase the risk versus reward ratio. Additionally, providing a limited number of authorised centres with a license to trade will enable a robust certification scheme to be developed, thereby reducing the dependence of TCM users on products that are difficult to verify as authentic.

Deviating briefly from the world of economics into the territory of systems theory these tiger farming claims can perhaps be elaborated on further.

Tiger Breeding cages Guilin Tiger Bear Farm Jul 07 (c) Belinda Wright WPSI-ITC #258 hi-res.jpg
Tiger Breeding cages Guilin Tiger Bear Farm Jul 07 (c) Belinda Wright WPSI-ITC 

As in all complex systems, there tend to be a series of unforeseen and indeed unintended consequences associated with any given course of action, hence the need for adaptive, responsive forms of intervention. Systems analysts tend to refer to these as either constituting positive or negative feedback loops. The crux of the argument in relation to tiger farms emphasises, as we have seen, the entry into a currently illegal marketplace of a series of legally controlled alternatives. Those who advocate such an approach argue that this course of action will dampen the effects of illegal trade and create a negative feedback loop in which poaching pressures can be better controlled. From a conservative economic perspective, this approach is viewed as being innovative and, as the orthodox conservation approach is deemed to have failed in its overall remit to protect tigers against illegal trade, a route worth pursuing. But it is also a route that has attracted significant resistance and opposition.

Let us now take the opportunity to counter the claims of tiger farm advocates with a brief summary of the views held by their opponents. Whilst the market-based lobby concentrate on a supply-driven approach, its detractors favour a demand-reduction focus to tackle the existence of illegal trade. From this viewpoint, far from reducing demand for illegal products, any resumption of legal trade will have the opposite outcome. It will increase the market, bringing new TCM users into play, particularly those that have been deterred due to the illegalities involved. This can be described as the ‘stigma effect’ whereby demand is kept at low levels while prohibition remains in place, but once any form of legalisation is undertaken, latent demand is turned into actual demand.

tiger group in Chinese farm.
Chinese tiger farms are based on speed breeding techniques. Image from http://animaluntamed.yuku.com/topic/357/Excellent-Wild-Photography#.VYFHClzBzRY

Moreover, in response to the claim that a legal market will allow a robust certification process to be developed, critics point to an opposite effect in which the newly created market will instead provide significant opportunities for the laundering of illegal parts. It is also argued that the economics just don’t add up. If it costs at least US$ 2,000 per annum to accommodate an individual captive tiger and only a few dollars to kill one, then poaching will remain a profitable occupation as the availability of farmed tigers cannot reduce the unit cost of a poached tiger sufficiently to deter criminal syndicates from engaging in the practice. One caveat here is that this particular element of the debate ignores the wider costs associated with either scenario. The pro-lobby point towards the costs of trafficking logistics alongside those of developing networks of corrupt officials to facilitate the movement of contraband across international boundaries. As suggested earlier, the anti-farming movement add the costs of personnel and the upkeep of facilities in addition to the anticipated expense of designing and operating any effective certification programme. Finally, though not exhaustively, the assumption that farmed tigers are a perfect substitute for wilds ones is far from pervasive. The very nature of tiger-based products emphasises the power of the largest of the big cats and, to some extent, consuming them entails some form of transfer of that power to the recipient of the medicine or potion. Domestication may be seen as a taming of such power and, as such, the farmed product may be viewed as inferior, with a significant premium paid for the real thing.

To take this one step further, there is also value in rarity and perhaps most worrying for the tiger in the wild is the fact that the more depleted their numbers become, the more desirable, and therefore valuable, their parts may prove to be. To return briefly to the application of systems theory, it can be argued that the anti-tiger farm lobby view any resumption of trade utilising captive species as creating a potential positive feedback loop, amplifying rather than dampening the initial effects that are being challenged. In this case, the argument proceeds, rather than seeing a reduction in poaching the most likely outcome will be an increased depletion of tigers from the wild.

End tiger trade - campaign poster
End tiger trade campaign poster

For these reasons, the future of tiger farming is uncertain, it is also heavily contested and for this reason it is essential that trade should not be reopened unless the ultimate effects of it can be assured. The problem facing both combatants in the debate is that its effects cannot be empirically tested and, rather than risk a fresh explosion as a result of increased demand, the World Bank have adjudicated that the precautionary principle should be invoked and that, in their estimation, the status quo should be retained. This does not necessarily reflect a situation in which the World Bank has sided with the anti-farming lobby but rather that they have evaluated the risks of such an approach and found that, at the present moment, the best way to protect tigers in the wild is to manage them in the wild. Undoubtedly the debate will rage on and as long as the issues remain so polarised, any chance of reconciliation is unlikely at best.


On the horns of a dilemma: the impact of technology on wildlife conservation

Drones - now in widespread use in tracking wildlife
Drones – now in widespread use in tracking wildlife

New technologies emerge all the time and existing technology is regularly updated and improved to provide enhanced applications in all spheres of our lives. Whether it is communication technologies that create the opportunity to share and correlate information on a previously unprecedented scale or GPS tracking devices allowing us to locate ourselves (and others) in a rapidly shrinking world, technological developments are increasingly permeating every avenue of our lives. In terms of wildlife and its protection, the same is undoubtedly true. Whether such innovation is a good thing is far from certain, however, as emerging technologies provide an opportunity not only for the guardians of the wild but also to those that wish to deplete it for their own profit. As the fight against illegal wildlife trade intensifies, so the application of technology has been promoted strongly, to provide conservationists, wildlife managers and enforcement agencies the information they require to more effectively challenge wildlife decline. For a long time research has been undertaken on endangered species and their movements through the fitting of radio collars, a technique that has enabled scientists to better understand the habits and behaviour of a host of different animals and, in the example of wild tigers particularly, to aid in calculations as to their present abundance. As we have witnessed in India of late, however, techniques to estimate tiger numbers are hotly disputed as a host of rival techniques are proposed to best estimate the quantity of the big cats inhabiting the national estate of reserves and parks.

This has led, of late, to a situation in which a high profile study of the latest All-India tiger estimation has been challenged by the authorities and legal advice subsequently sought in order to push for a retraction of the criticisms of the processes adopted in the census. In short, the figures provided by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India are not believed by everyone. The information provided by one technological application are disputed by adherents of other approaches, leading to distrust and conflict among people and organisations that share the same overarching goal: to save tigers in the wild. This fracturing of the tiger conservation lobby in India has occurred at a time when threats to the persistence of tigers in the wild continue to intensify and such a threat to unity among their protectors is unlikely to be viewed negatively by those seeking to push the tiger closer to the precipice of extinction. It has also provided ammunition to critics of conservation orthodoxy to push for radical changes in the ways in which wildlife protection is practiced, calling into question the authority and effectiveness of trade bans in favour of legalised trade avenues informed by market economics. Here, the issue of tiger farms in China, of periodic sales of ivory stockpiles from Africa and even the development of synthetic rhino horn has emerged within the conservation armoury, further polarising the debate between proponents of strict enforcement and those advocating a free market response to species decline. While this debate may initially appear to be peripheral to discussions concerning the employment of new technology as a tool for conservation, a closer look at recent proposals reveals a significant emphasis on technological innovation in the fight to save the rhino.

As mentioned above, the bioengineering of synthetic rhino horn has emerged as a potential option in the rhino wars. A biotech company in the US has already developed artificial horn and is seeking to grow and promote ‘cruelty-free’ horns in an attempt to reduce poaching pressure in the wild. The idea here is to provide a credible alternative to the use of rhino products and, at the same time, to increase the supply of horn to reduce the value of the authentic article on the black market. This approach, however, conflicts with the current emphasis on demand reduction efforts and is viewed as simplistic and dangerous by many conservationists. Why? Firstly, any attempt to open a legal marketplace for currently outlawed wildlife products carries a significant threat of laundering potential.

A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns, circa May 1964  Sold for $74,750
A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns, circa May 1964 Sold for $74,750

Rhino horn as a product is supplied in a powder form and, as such, its synthetic and natural forms may be difficult to differentiate between, providing an avenue for traders to pass off illegally sourced products in newly legalised markets. Secondly, the existing ban on trade in rhinos and their derivatives can create a type of stigma in the marketplace whereby potential consumers are reluctant to purchase items deemed to contravene the law. There is a real fear that if trade becomes legalised in any form this will represent a tacit acceptance of the medical value of horn and therefore all forms of trade will become more socially acceptable, stimulating rather than reducing poaching.

This potential stimulation of demand is refuted by the CEO of the bioengineering company in question who points not only to the introduction of faux fur in the fashion industry and its role in limiting the use of natural fur garments, but also employs techno-speak to raise concerns surrounding blind adherence to what he sees as a failing conservation paradigm. Claiming that Conservation 1.0 has largely failed to achieve its lofty aims, he instead looks towards a new, technologically driven Conservation 2.0 including the development of his company’s synthetic rhino horn, replicated through the medium of 3D printing. For conservationists, long versed in resisting the commercialisation of conservation, this course of action represents a clear and present danger. It provides another example of economists and business people, unversed in the science of wildlife conservation, aggressively promoting free market solutions to what they view as a practice based on non-market interventions. In light of the uncertainties that underpin such courses of action and the difficulty in undertaking any empirical research to justify any move away from demand-reduction mechanisms towards a supply-led approach, opponents of Conservation 2.0 continue to invoke the precautionary principle.

While these debates are undoubtedly complicated and strongly contested, the use of social media in the fight for species survival, on the surface at least, appears to be more readily digestible. A headline in the Spring edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine caught my attention. ‘Can Facebook save British seahorses? It asked. Flicking to the requisite page I read an article that focused on the role of social media in kick starting conservation campaigns through such means as online petitions posted via Take Part. Quite Lo-tech I admit but, reading on, I became increasingly aware of the power of people in challenging and guiding the actions and decisions of a range of authorities and organisations in dealing with wildlife issues. After all, the story proceeds; we are voters and consumers, our voices all count. The starting point on any ladder of engagement is to create a constituency of interest and to translate this into concerted pressure to seek action and change. In this case, the lower rungs of the ladder comprise the mobilisation of support for any given issue, communicated through the signing of an online petition. It is from this point that pressure groups can ascend the ladder and use the accumulated support to persuade decision makers and business interests to adapt their activities to reflect the views of a significant segment of the population.

I remember years ago standing freezing on a winter day in London trying to persuade busy shoppers to add their name to a petition aimed at preventing a seal cull. Things don’t seem to change that much. I think I generated around 20 new signatures on that day and, delighted with my efforts, set off sniffling and sneezing towards home.

The cove: a petition to save Japan's Dolphins
The global reach of online petitions

A few weeks ago I added my name to an online petition to protest against, of all things, a seal cull. Simple, a few minutes tapping away on the iPad and my name joined tens of thousands of others across the globe all questioning the reason behind such a course of action. All in the comfort and warmth of my own home. Glancing back towards the article the opportunity provided by technology hit home, the vast potential of mobilising and channelling support for a campaign within a short timespan, reaching millions of people instantaneously proved difficult to ignore. This led me to add my support to range of causes I cared strongly about and, as a recent convert to social media via twitter, to engage with such issues by listening and conversing with like-minded individuals and institutions. Moreover, it provided the opportunity to share not only my concerns but also my own good news stories, often via the posting of photographs I had taken on recent visits to wildlife habitat.

A Rhino and her calf somewhere in Botswana
Somewhere in Botswana

What better than sharing a picture of a rhino and its calf unconcernedly grazing as I watched from a jeep somewhere in Botswana? I received a number of favourites and retweets and, energised through the interest generated, I accepted a request to give a presentation to work colleagues on ‘ecoterrorism’ and the emerging role of technology in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade. What is more, I was also persuaded to broaden my audience beyond the confines of our university and embarked upon a live streaming of the presentation via Periscope, another new innovation for me to grapple with.

Before getting started, however, the research stage beckoned. If I was to talk to so many people it goes without question that I needed to be confident of my knowledge of the issues and, through a combination of books, journals and web-based material, I updated myself on the latest themes and debates. And it was here that the alarm bells in my mind started ringing. Could media like Facebook, twitter and Instagram actually be aiding poaching networks in their pursuit of endangered wildlife? Could my posting of rhino photos inadvertently lead to their destruction?

Understanding the unintended effects of technology
Understanding the unintended effects of technology

The answer it seemed was a categorical yes. For unbeknown to myself and doubtless countless other wildlife enthusiasts, the devices that provide us with immediate digital images, and enable us to disseminate these photographs widely, contain a geo-location mechanism that allow others to ascertain the time, date and location of the image posted. The necessity to disable the geotag function on electronic devices may therefore of critical importance before any sharing of images on social media, just another example of the unforeseen consequences of technology.

Just like the use of radio collars on tigers in India for the purposes of tracking them to facilitate more effective protection, poachers it seems may be collecting and collating data from tourists posting their images on social media and using these to track wildlife movement and behaviour for more nefarious purposes. Just as information equates to power in the conservation fight against poachers so too does it present an advantage to the poaching networks themselves who, historically, have tended to adapt and evolve their operations more quickly than the protectors of wildlife.

Remaining with the issue of poaching and enforcement, another widely promoted use of innovation surrounds that of drone technology. Already utilised in a variety of scenarios by wildlife managers and conservationists to monitor wildlife population movements, drone deployment is increasingly being viewed as an important weapon in the fight against poachers. Just recently, an article appeared in the Bloomberg press about an offer from a private sector foundation in Tanzania to provide and deploy drones over the territory of the Selous Game Reserve in an attempt to support anti-poaching measures. On the surface, the benefits of such an approach are obvious although the potential problems associated with the increasing availability of such technology are perhaps less appreciated. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can be used to spot suspected poachers or poaching cells, providing information to officials to better coordinate more speedy deployment of rapid response units. This provides obvious benefits in the fight against illegal wildlife trade, yet it is the increasing ubiquity of drones that provides a note of caution. In this technological age, well-funded poaching networks are also in a position to employ their own drones to monitor not only the location of wildlife but also to ascertain the whereabouts of anti-poaching units, creating a ‘cat and mouse’ situation in which stalemate becomes the most likely outcome. Add into this mix the presence of tourism companies seeking to provide guaranteed sightings for their increasingly demanding clientele and without regulation the situation may become even more complicated, culminating in a question of ‘whose drone is it anyway?’

Undoubtedly, new technology may provide significant benefits for wildlife conservation but, equally, it can also introduce new challenges. Some technology may prove to be more palatable than others and to some conservationists who harbour a deeply-entrenched distrust of what they consider to be private sector profiteers, such ingress may be equated to a creeping commercialisation of wildlife protection. Equally, to many within the commercial sector that view conservation as a potentially profitable enterprise that is worth investment, blanket reluctance to embrace the public sector represents a lost opportunity. Here it not merely a choice between Conservation 1.0 and 2.0 but rather the emergence of an effective and adaptive approach that is most likely to respond to burgeoning poaching pressures. Perhaps the best answer to the question posed by technology and conservation is to proceed with caution and to provide the levels of regulation required to ensure that innovation works for, rather than against wildlife protection. To achieve this technology must work in concert with existing conservation activity and not merely seek to dismantle long standing security and enforcement efforts.

The last Northern White Rhino requires 24/7 armed guards.
The last Northern White Rhino requires 24/7 armed guards. Photo by Brent Stinton

I would like to end this discussion with a recent quote attributed to the President of Botswana, Ian Khama (by Paula Kahumbu via twitter): “God will judge poachers. It’s my job to arrange the meeting”. What remains to be seen is the contribution of technology in facilitating such an audience.