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A New Course for Wild Tigers

A New York Times editorial highlights a struggle faced by the wild tiger, noting its population is down to approximately 3,200 from a high of over 100,000 just one century ago. Tigers face a number of challenges: their wild populations occupy a dwindling amount of space -- putting pressure on their habitats, and a variety of tiger parts are highly valued, specifically by the Chinese.

Read the Times quote:

Ending the international trade in tiger parts, which are still believed to have almost magical powers in China and across Asia, will be harder to solve. This isn’t a matter of stopping a few poachers. It means shutting down hard-core traffickers and a high-profit black market. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, is scheduled to attend on Wednesday, the final day of the meeting, which we hope is a good sign. China banned trading in tiger parts in 1993. It must actively discourage the cultural appetite for them and aggressively pursue traffickers.

You can almost hear the condescension jump off the page. Those silly Chinese and their primitive beliefs about medicine, and their revolting food and drink preferences. If only their government were able to make them more civilized, like us.

Imagine this paragraph is about the trade in drugs rather than tiger parts. Many sensible liberals understand the failure of the war on drugs -- the inability of a government to stop market forces from meeting the wants and needs of individuals, the billions of dollars and lives wasted, the futility (and arrogance) of efforts to change a "cultural appetite." Why are they unable to see that the trade in tigers is no different? I am confident that these same individuals support trade in cows, chickens, pigs, etc. all of which are killed in the same way.

The current wild tiger population is found in a variety of scattered countries throughout the world. One thing that many of them have in common is that villages located near tiger populations (forests) are often still living in poverty. Furthermore, without adequate protections against the tiger, these villages are threatened as tigers are capable of attacking and killing humans. When poachers arrive to kill tiger's, villagers are more than happy to trade their localized knowledge of the area (to help poaching) in exchange for money and the removal of the tiger -- a threat to their lives. Poachers are able to pay significant fees to these villagers for their assistance as one individual tiger can fetch as much as $50,000 on the black market.

The solution? In my opinion, more of the same will not work. Poachers will continue to be allured by large profits and conservation efforts will not succeed.

Allow tigers to be traded internationally. There is some worry that the Chinese truly prefer "wild tigers" rather than one which would be raised by humans, though I cannot imagine that their would be much hesitation when the price of tigers drops precipitously due to market forces. The incentive to poach tigers will disappear, and breeders of tigers will ensure there is an adequate number of tigers remaining to assist with re-breeding efforts if that becomes necessary.

Image credit: wallyg's flickr photostream.