Nov 10 2010

The Tiger Trade

In a disturbing article, the BBC reports that the tiger trade has been responsible for more than a thousand tiger deaths over the last decade. Tigers are listed as endangered with extinction, with only around 3 thousand animals thought to exist in the wild. Therefore the illegal tiger trade represents a significant portion of the wild tiger population.

The report also indicates that the black market in illegal animal parts is the third largest black market in the world, after drugs and weapons, and is estimated at about 10 billion dollars a year. What the report fails to mention, however, is what is chiefly driving this illegal trade – traditional medicine. Tiger bones have been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries, used in many potions. The Chinese TCM market remains the greatest demand for tiger parts.

However, in 1993 the Chinese government banned the use of tiger bones and removed them from the list of approved medicines – which I guess means that prior to 1993 they were actually approved. Many TCM leaders have supported the ban. This has not changed the fact, though, that there are still many TCM practitioners who use tiger bones – hence the thriving black market in tiger parts.

The TCM demand for rare animal parts is not limited to tigers. Rhino horn is also a valued ingredient, used to treat just abut anything. Bear bile is another example – apparently the bears are kept in cages with catheters in their gall bladders.

There are many reasons why animals are threatened by human activity. Loss of habitat is the primary reason, but overhunting is another. In some cases there are real dilemmas between the needs of traditional people and wildlife preservation – such as those local populations that rely upon whale hunting. In my opinion, even in such situations efforts should be made to wean these populations off of reliance upon hunting endangered species.

In the case of TCM, however, there is no dilemma. A pseudoscientific and superstitious tradition that should be relegated to the history books anyway is also creating demand for the illegal trade in the parts of endangered animals. There should be a worldwide outcry to end these practices entirely. TCM is not only bad for tigers, rhinos, and bears – it’s bad for people, too.

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