Tiger park calls for legalization of tiger trade

Updated: 2007-04-28 08:42

HARBIN, April 27 -- Liu Dan has been raising tigers for more than 20 years, but his dream is to persuade the Chinese government to lift its ban on the trade of tiger parts.

Calls from within China to remove the ban have grown louder in recent months, causing many international groups to voice their concerns that legalizing the trade of tiger bone for medicinal purposes would stimulate demand for tiger products and increase illegal poaching of wild tigers.

But Liu, chief engineer of the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding Center in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the world's largest Siberian tiger breeding base, remains unfazed. For Liu, a tiger park without the opportunity to sell is simply not financially viable.

"We cannot afford to raise the tigers, and we are very short of money now," said Liu.

The Harbin tiger park's tiger population has grown from eight, when the park opened in 1986, to around 700. It is set to be home to 1,000 tigers by 2010.

"An adult tiger eats about five to ten kilos of meat a day, plus medicines and other nutrients: it costs an average of 100 yuan (about 13 U.S. dollars) for each tiger every day," Liu said.

"Although the government gives tax breaks, allowances and expenses to train the tigers to live in the wild, the center's major revenue comes from ticket sales, which average about 10 million yuan a year and is only enough to pay for a year's food supply for 300 tigers," he said.

"We have to exercise birth control, replace beef with cheaper chicken and cut meals for the animals," Liu said.

"We can not pay our staff their salaries in time and the center is already in millions of debt. We can tell our staff their pay is to be delayed, but we can not tell the tigers that they will have no food," he said.

Liu added that the center is keeping more than 100 dead tiger bodies in giant freezers, which cost more than two million yuan every year to operate, in the hope the government will rescind the ban.

Liu has complained of the problems of overpopulation in the park for the last couple of years, but in 2002, park chiefs actually set a target of having 1,000 tigers by 2010. It seems the park has always been gambling on the government doing away with the ban and calls into question their efforts to reintroduce tigers into the wild.

In 1986, when the base was established with central government funding, trade of tiger parts was still legal and the park made money from selling parts of dead tigers. But in 1993, the ban was imposed after fierce lobbying from conservationists as it became clear the population of tigers in the wild was dwindling alarmingly. The Chinese government also deleted tiger bone from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) dictionaries.

Conservationists are campaigning against the lifting of the ban, denouncing it as "a bad business decision" which will result in more illegal poaching and the virtual distinction of the species.

"It costs thousands of dollars to raise a tiger on a farm, but as little as one bullet to poach one, and wild tigers are regarded as more potent sources of medicine," said Ge Rui, chief representative of the Asian Office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Statistics show that only 2,500 breeding adult tigers survive in the wild, 80 percent of them in India and only 50 in China, and they are under severe threat from loss of habitat, a decline in the population of their prey and poaching.

"A relaxation in Chinese rules would drive tigers to extinction," she said.

Liu is desperate. He says he has tried other ways to raise funds such as loaning tigers to other parks. But, he said, they escaped and attacked people. He argues that the lifting of the ban would not have such a negative impact if other measures were also taken.

"Lifting the ban provides a good outlet for the dead tiger bodies and generates more revenues for the parks, which will lead to better protection of the animals," Liu said.

"We have done a lot of work to reintroduce the tigers to the wild. By cutting in-breeding and improving techniques, we have improved the ability and chances of survival for some tigers and we firmly believe that one day it will succeed," he said.

"Thus the ban could be lifted with restrictions and precautions. For example, the tiger parts will only be sold to medicine companies that are registered and closely monitored.

"Meanwhile, if the government increases supervision and law enforcement on illegal poaching, lifting the ban won't affect tigers in the wild."

However, the statistics speak for themselves. The population of tigers in the wild was in free-fall up until the Chinese government implemented the ban on tiger trade in 1993. And still no captive-bred tiger has ever been successfully released into the wild, as Ge Rui points out.

"Captive-bred tigers have never been successfully released into the wild due to gene inefficiencies," she said.

"The lifting of the ban will also soil the reputation of the TCM industry," she added.

Zhang Wei, a professor at the Northeast Forestry University, disagrees on this point.

"Using the resource is not to destroy the tigers. Leaving them unused is no protection at all," he said.

"The ban on tiger parts has wiped out production of all tiger-bone-based TCM in China, and hundreds of thousand-year-old TCM prescriptions have become waste papers," he said.

Chinese tradition has it that every bit of a tiger has some medicinal use: tiger bones for treating rheumatism, tiger urine for treating eye infections.

Zhang said lifting the ban would give patients legal ways to obtain effective traditional Chinese medicine and more choices in treatments.

The government remains tight-lipped in the controversy, but sooner or later it is going to have to make a choice.

China is home to 5,000 captive-bred tigers. The government will need to take responsibility for them if the tiger parks like Harbin's go bankrupt. Either that or they can choose to take the easy way out and legalize the trade of tiger parts, critics said.

Ge Rui believes the government should make the ban permanent, halt the breeding of captive tigers and start phasing out the farms.

Tao Jin, an official with the Heilongjiang forestry department, said "We (the local tiger protection authority) have not received any word of lifting the ban from the central government so far, and the ban has not changed."

Before the Chinese government utters any response, it seems the debate will continue to rage for a good while yet.

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