for National Geographic News
A controversial proposal to lift China's 13-year domestic ban on trade in tiger parts has conservationists baring their teeth.
At issue is the sale of bones, organs, claws, fat, and blood from "farm-raised" tigers—an idea proponents say will help stem poaching of wild tigers.
Illegal trade in tiger parts for traditional medicine has been a major factor driving wild populations steeply downward. And wildlife protection groups say that poaching would only increase if China's trade ban were to be lifted.
About a dozen privately owned, government-licensed tiger farms currently exist in China, most of them operated as tourist attractions.
The farms hold about 4,000 tigers. Conservationists and animal rights advocates have long criticized conditions on the farms and argued for their closure.
Farm operators say they can help with tiger conservation by legally selling products derived from captive tigers that die a natural death.
Flooding the market with farmed tiger parts, supporters say, would lower the profitability of poaching, thus reducing its occurrence.
Wildlife advocates maintain that the proposal is motivated by commerce, not conservation, and would likely spell doom for the last remaining wild tigers.
"China has taken excellent actions to enhance enforcement and to educate its public" about tiger conservation, said Sue Lieberman, Global Species Programme Director for the international conservation organization WWF.
"Any lifting of the ban would undermine efforts they have put in place over the last 16 years."
Materials such as powdered tiger bone have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and can fetch a high price.
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