When the domestic trade ban went into effect in 1993, such goods continued to be sold on the black market.
(Related news: "Protected Species, Animal Products for Sale Online" [August 26, 2005].)
Despite a government-run education campaign to discourage the use of tiger products and promote wildlife-friendly alternatives, demand remains high.
Barun Mitra is director of the Liberty Institute, a pro-free-market think tank in New Delhi, India. He says wild tigers remain at risk because mainstream conservationists have been taking the wrong approach.
In his view the problem is essentially an economic one—and it requires an economic solution.
"Trying to choke demand by greater investment in law and order has always failed, whether you look at the tiger in India or Prohibition"—the domestic ban on alcohol sales from 1920 to 1933—"in the U.S.," Mitra said.
Instead, Mitra believes that wild tigers would be best served by allowing Chinese tiger farmers to meet the demand for medicinal products.
Mitra has been making the case for farmed tiger trade in newspaper editorials and public appearances, including participation in a debate last month in Washington, D.C., hosted by the nonprofit Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
The free market can protect endangered species, Mitra says, by according the animals their full value as private, saleable property.
Demand cannot be wished or regulated away, he says. If the only way to meet demand is by hunting wild animals, populations will inevitably decline.
After a recent tour of tiger farms hosted by the Chinese government, Mitra cited officials as saying that the country could produce a hundred thousand farmed tigers in the next 10 to 15 years.
By Mitra's reckoning, a captive population of that size could produce up to ten thousand tiger carcasses a year.
If the market were flooded by such an abundant source of tiger products, Mitra believes prices would drop sufficiently so that poaching and smuggling would no longer be worth the risk.
More resources could then be devoted to developing local economic incentives for tiger conservation.
"To save the tiger in the wild," Mitra said, "we need to ensure that the value of a tiger alive in the forest is higher than the value of a dead one."
But Mitra's "sell the tiger to save it" proposal has drawn a sharply negative response from conservation groups such as WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Save the Tiger Fund.
WWF's Lieberman says Mitra's argument has already been proven incorrect.
"It was the so-called free-market approach that led to [tigers] becoming so endangered in the first place," she said.
"China once had one of the largest tiger populations in the wild and now has one of the smallest. This is agreed by experts to be due to the unregulated, out-of-control domestic market in tiger parts."
Last month a coalition of animal welfare groups issued a joint statement during Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to India urging the Chinese government to maintain the ban.
And in last month's CEI debate, Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that tiger farming and trade would only stimulate consumption.
Poaching would remain profitable, she said, since it will always cost less to kill a wild tiger than to raise and feed a captive one.
Lieberman agrees, adding that consumer preference for wild tiger materials would help keep the black market in operation.
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