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.

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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.

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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.