China’s president, Xi Jinping, is in Washington, D.C. this week meeting President Obama. I am sure they will explore a robust and important agenda of items for discussion and I hope that President Obama will heed our request to include tiger conservation in their deliberations. There are a dangerously low 3,000 wild tigers remaining across Asia. One of the most serious threats that continues to haunt these iconic animals is poaching, which is fueled by the illegal trade in their meat, skin, bones, and other products to satisfy demand driven by wealth and greed.

Threats Facing Tigers

This demand is being stimulated by captive tiger breeding operations in Asia, so-called “tiger farms,” in which tigers are intensively bred for trade in their parts and products. Their skins are professionally taxidermied for the luxury home décor market, and their skeletons are soaked in vats of wine to make tiger bone “health tonic.” In recent years, this industry has developed to a point where the number of captive tigers in these facilities now vastly outnumbers their wild counterparts. In China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos alone, there are approximately 6,700 tigers in breeding facilities, often kept in appalling conditions. Of course, tigers face similar cruel captivity in the U.S.

We have seen this phenomenon before; deliberate farming of Asiatic black (or moon) bears for their gall bladders and bile was supposed to alleviate the poaching pressure on wild populations. Tragically but predictably, this led to an animal welfare crisis, with these individual bears subjected to barbaric, unimaginable cruelty … while wild bears across the globe continue to be slaughtered to feed the bear parts market.

Breeding Tigers in Captivity

Not only are wild tigers beset by habitat loss and degradation, increasing conflict with people due to expanding human populations in their range countries, and a myriad of other threats, the increasing availability of commercially produced tiger parts and products presents yet another obstacle to tiger conservation. The hard graft being done by governments, conservation organizations, and private individuals to save tigers and reverse their decline is being directly and fundamentally undermined by this sordid trade. The creation of a captive industry to supply the market for tiger products continues to foster the development of the existing market, one which often perceives the wild counterpart as more powerful, virile, or otherwise more desirable. Additionally, wild tiger skins are relatively cheap to acquire, while captive-bred tigers are costly to rear, as their skins are prepared professionally and are thus priced higher.

China is the main producer of captive-bred tigers, their parts, and their products … and also their main consumer. The country’s government has supported the expansion of tiger farms and allowed a legal trade in skins from farmed tigers. China banned the tiger bone trade in 1993 — and rightly so, since it threatened the survival of wild tigers — but the production of “health tonic” produced from tiger skeletons continues unabated.

China is also a signatory to the Conventional on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and under that multilateral international treaty, it is bound to destroy all stockpiles of tiger parts and products and phase out tiger farms.

Calling on the President

The United States and the Obama administration specifically have a significant role to play in addressing global tiger conservation. We must call on China directly and definitively to phase out tiger farming completely and stop all domestic commercialization of tigers and their parts. (Remember, this doesn’t only affect tigers now, but lions are being slaughtered in Africa, and their bones shipped to Asia to feed this same market.) But, we can’t approach this important yet sensitive international dialogue hypocritically. So, the U.S. government must also stop the commercial trade and utilization of tigers in America, as well.

The decline of wild tigers globally is a tragic history lesson: from 100,000 in 1900 to 3,000 today. We must learn from our conservation history, do all we can to save wild tigers before it’s too late, and never, ever let this happen to another wild animal again.

Image source: Alias 0591/Flickr