A reopening of Chinese business in tiger parts could doom the species to extinction and undermine efforts to curb other illegal wildlife trade, the Worldwide Fund for Nature warned on Monday.
Tiger organs, teeth, bones and penises fetch high prices on the black market, where they are used in traditional Chinese medicines to treat ailments like rheumatism. In other parts of Asia, the bones are considered an aphrodisiac.
China banned domestic trade in all tigers and tiger parts in 1993, but is considering reopening the business based on farm-bred, captive animals.
But that would send a signal that it is acceptable to buy tiger parts which would threaten wild tiger populations, experts in the wildlife trade said.
“We’re afraid that poachers living near the world’s last populations of tigers may kill them to supply illegal markets that are likely to develop alongside any new legal ones,” Susan Lieberman, head of WWF’s Global Species Program, said in a statement.
“This could be the final act that drives the tiger towards extinction.”
International trade in all tigers and tiger products is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Illegal trade thriving in western China
But the global illegal wildlife trade is worth about $8 billion a year, according to the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, and illegal sales of pelts of tigers and other rare big cats have been surging in Tibetan regions of western China.
“In the past few years there has been a revitalization of wearing traditional clothing, partly due to officials wearing such things are events and being broadcast in the media,” Samuel Lee, a Hong Kong-based official with wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, told Reuters.
Tiger skins bring prices of between $2,500 and $25,000, Lee said.
The WWF said it was not clear how soon a reopening of the tiger trade in China might happen, but it speculated officials were being pressure by business interests.
“One would guess there is a lobby from tiger farms for profits,” said Joanna Benn, of the WWF’s Species Program.
Species on the precipice
The world’s tigers are at a record low, numbering at an estimated 5,000-7,000, down from more than 100,000 in the 19th century.
Chinese state media said last year that native South China tigers, among the rarest of the world’s five remaining tiger subspecies, were on the verge of extinction in the wild with less than 30 alive.
The Siberian tiger, native to northern China, southern Russia and parts of North Korea, is also on the brink, with only a few hundred believed to be living outside captivity.
Earlier this month, state media reported a restaurant in northeast China had been shut by police after claiming to serve dishes made with tiger meat taken from animals in the nearby Hengdaohezi Siberian tiger park, China’s largest center for breeding the animals.
After he was arrested by police, the restaurant owner confessed the alleged tiger flesh was actually donkey meat spiked with tiger urine.