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Conservation experts say the wild tiger may be headed toward extinction. There could be fewer than 3,000 left. One of the tigers' biggest threats is poachers, who feed a huge black market for medicines made out of tiger part(ph). Some conservationists say there is a way to put these poachers out of business: raise the big cats on tiger farms in China and flood the market with their organs instead. To say the least, tiger farming is controversial.

Here's NPR's John Nielsen.

JOHN NIELSEN: If you want to see what a tiger farm looks like, type the words tiger and farm into something like YouTube, then sit back and watch a few of the dozens of tourist videos filmed at tiger farms in China.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, my God.

NIELSEN: You'll see groups of tigers sitting on cars, chasing chickens around inside cages, and ripping up a live cow dumped out of a truck.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, my God! This can't be legal.

NIELSEN: It is legal at the 14 registered tiger farms in China. Barun Mitra, director of a free market think-tank in India, says those farms hold approximately 4,000 live tigers.

Mr. BARUN MITRA (Director, Liberty Institute): Which means about 300 to 400 tigers die each year out of natural death. The question is: What do you do with their remains, with the bones and the carcasses?

NIELSEN: Mitra says the answer is a simple one: flood the traditional medicine market with those tiger bones and carcasses. He says that would drive prices down to the point where poachers would get out of the business of killing wild tigers because they couldn't make money. Profits from the sales farm-raised tiger parts could also help fund anti-poaching programs, he says. Or even programs that turn poachers into nature guides and park rangers. In some countries, those kinds of programs bring in millions every year.

Mr. MITRA: If even a fraction of that kind of money is generated in rural parts of India or China, you will see a sea change in attitudes

NIELSEN: Mitra says the biggest problem with this plan and is that it is currently illegal to sell or trade any kind of tiger parts anywhere in the world. Mitra says there is an urgent need to change those rules.

Mr. MITRA: I can't understand how such a enormously valuable economic asset be left to rot because we want to put under a kind of a non-market bracket.

NIELSEN: Mitra recently toured some of China's tiger parks as a guest of the Chinese government, which is extremely interested in the idea that farmed tigers might help save wild ones. But Western conservation groups and wild tiger experts say this farming plan is deeply flawed. First of all, according to Grace Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there is no way to certified that products like tiger blood wine come from tigers raised on farms.

Ms. GRACE GABRIEL (International Fund for Animal Welfare): How do you know that wine is from captive-bred tigers and not from wild tigers? It's just going to make law enforcement so much more difficult.

NIELSEN: Gabriel does not think a penny of the money raised by selling farmed tiger parts will actually end up in the hands of the people who live near wild tigers. She says the only people certain to make money are the owners of the tiger farms.

Finally, other critics say this market-based plan makes no economic sense. Richard Damania, an economist at the University of Adelaide, says there's simply no way a poacher who spends 20 bucks to kill a wild tiger will ever be undersold by a tiger farmer; feeding costs alone are in the thousands for the farmers, he says.

Professor RICHARD DAMANIA (Economist, University of Adelaide): That gap is so wide that you'd never be able to compete with the poachers' costs. So you'd never be able to flood the markets sufficiently and still have a viable enterprise of tiger farms.

NIELSEN: And so the price will never come down.

Prof. DAMANIA: Will never come down enough to eliminate poaching. In fact, it might make things worse.

NIELSEN: Damania says people who would never buy a banned tiger product might be interested in legal ones. If they are, demand goes up.

Prof. DAMANIA: So demand is going to go up. Demand goes up, price goes up even further, the incentive to poach goes up.

NIELSEN: But Buran Mitra of the Liberty Institute in India says the time has come to consider radical solutions to the wild tiger problem. In other words, if these animals are this close to extinction, why not take a gamble on tiger farming?

The two sides do agree on one thing: Poaching is not the only problem faced by wild tigers. For example, since the 1990s, nearly half of the lands these big cats used to live on have been cleared and occupied by people. If that trend line doesn't change, it won't be long before a lot of wild tigers don't have any wild places left to live in.

John Nielsen, NPR News.

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