Captive-bred tigers in a Chinese pen, via the EIA report (PDF).
Tigers are some of the biggest victims of the wildlife trade, with the rare cats' bones coveted for traditional medicine and their coats prized as rugs. In Vietnam, tiger parts are so valuable that they make better bribes than cash. And in China, tiger parts are in such high demand that they are being farmed like chickens.
According to a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, China's tiger farms are huge, with thousands of captive tigers being bred for slaughter. That's possible because China has essentially legalized the tiger trade, which is troubling considering that China is a signatory of the CITES treaty, which bans international trade of tiger parts (along with parts of other animals, like rhinos and elephants) and calls for domestic trade prohibitions.
But far more troubling is the EIA's conclusion that China's tiger farms are actually stimulating demand for wild tigers. The report states that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 captive tigers in China, a population that boomed from just a few dozen in the 80s thanks to favorable legal policies as well as funding from China's State Forestry Administration. (As the Times noted in 2010, China's largest tiger farm is run by the SFA.) Meanwhile, China's wild tiger population has plummeted to just a few dozen individuals, down from a high of around 4,000 in the late 1940s.
Why the swing? One thing undercover EIA investigators found was that tiger skins from legal, captive-bred sources were between 50 and 300 percent more expensive than skins poached in the wild. The EIA argues that captive breeding is stimulating demand for tiger parts, whatever the provenance.
The argument has merit: If tiger pelts in China are a legal luxury good, more people are going to be interested in showing one off in their living room than if it were illegal. But since they're quite expensive, people will be drawn to a cheaper alternative, which means poaching wild tigers, in China and elsewhere. That's not to say that banning the trade is immediately going to stop poaching; that would be unrealistic. Yet by allowing a legal trade, you also support an illicit one.