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Wild Laws: China and Its Role in Illicit Wildlife Trade

Picture your typical farm: Pigs, cows, chickens, goats…and tigers? This may sound far-fetched, but many iconic wild animals – including tigers, bears, and rhinos – are now farmed en masse in China.

Date & Time

Jun. 2, 2016
2:00pm – 4:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Picture your typical farm: Pigs, cows, chickens, goats…and tigers? This may sound far-fetched, but many iconic wild animals – including tigers, bears, and rhinos – are now farmed en masse in China.

According to wildlife experts who spoke at the Wilson Center in June, Chinese demand for wildlife products is driving a global trade in endangered species. “Today’s tiger farms are basically feedlots where tigers are bred like cattle to make luxury products, including tiger bone wine and tiger skin rugs,” said Judith Mills, author of the book, Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species. Some of these operations are run as entertainment centers, where a few well cared for animals perform for tourists. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, cats are crammed into small concrete cells, bred for slaughter.

Mills stumbled on her first tiger farm in 1991 while investigating farms where bears were “milked” for their bile with a catheter inserted into their stomachs. Bile is an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, but pharmaceuticals that have similar properties are widely available. “I will never forget when my main government minder turned to me and told me that China already had thousands of bears on farms and that it intended to farm bears and dozens of other endangered species just like cows and pigs,” Mills said. “Those are his words: ‘Just like cows and pigs.’”

“Today’s tiger farms are basically feedlots where tigers are bred like cattle”

Officials from China’s State Forestry Administration, the agency that both oversees and promotes commercial wildlife production, told Mills that farming will save species from extinction and reduce poaching.

But “China’s farming of wild animals such as tigers, bears, and, more recently, rhinos, has not provided any conservation benefit to these species,” said Allan Thornton, president of the nonprofit Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA). Wild products are regarded as superior to farm-raised, and the legal market simply makes it easier to launder poached animal products.

During a recent EIA investigation in China, undercover agents spoke with three different ivory traders who all said that at least 90 percent of what they trade legally is poached, said Thornton. A common method of feeding illegal products into the market is reusing and counterfeiting government-issued permits. Meanwhile, about 96 African elephants are killed each day for their ivory, a rate that could wipe them out within a decade.

China is the largest market for illegal wildlife products – and the market continues to grow. “Wildlife species that are bred in captivity for commercial purposes make some products widely available, which drives up consumer demand and increases poaching in the wild,” said Sharon Guynup, an environmental journalist and Wilson Center public policy fellow.

Reducing Demand, Stopping Trade

To reduce consumer demand in China, the non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has run several innovative outreach campaigns, said Grace Ge Gabriel, the regional director of IFAW’s Asia chapter.

In one campaign, Chinese pop stars, athletes, TV celebrities, and CEOs denounced buying wildlife products in a series of public service announcements and ads that were posted on billboards, buses, in airports, and other public places. Another initiative targeted the belief that ivory comes from elephant teeth and the extraction didn’t kill them. An IFAW survey found that in 2007, 70 percent of Chinese people didn’t know that elephants died for the ivory trade. Three years into a campaign to change this misconception, they found that of the 44 percent of people who had bought ivory in the past year, only seven percent said they would do so again.

70% of those surveyed didn’t know elephants died for the ivory trade

To reduce online demand, IFAW has worked with e-commerce sites like Alibaba and Taobao to remove wildlife products from their inventories. Gabriel also worked with social media sites and search engines to discourage online consumers, embedding messages into searches for “ivory” that detail the effects of buying ivory products.

Reducing demand is key to saving many species, not just rhinos, elephants, and tigers, but lions, pangolins, turtles, and many others. Demand reduction is just part of a wider strategy, Gabriel said. “To save wildlife species we really have to work on every link on that trade train, from poaching to trafficking to demand.”

In 1990, a global ban on international ivory trade was instituted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the wildlife trade and is signed by 180 nations. The ivory trade collapsed and elephant populations recovered. Poaching in Kenya declined by more than 90 percent in a year. But in 2008, a “one-off” auction allowed a $15.5 million sale of raw ivory to China and Japan. At that point, poaching skyrocketed. In 2011, 25,000 elephants were killed.

Thornton noted the importance of protective decisions by CITES. “The available evidence shows that when CITES makes precautionary decisions…the outcome can be very positive both in China and outside China,” said Thornton.  But “when CITES policies and decisions have promoted trade in products from endangered species, such as the African elephant, the outcomes have been disastrous.”

This summer, the Chinese government amended its 1989 Wildlife Protection Law, further loosening restrictions. The new law states that any animal that can be successfully raised in captivity can now be commercialized. CITES will discuss captive breeding at their upcoming meeting in Johannesburg this September.

Corruption and Crime

The illicit wildlife trade is now considered the number one threat to many species. The disappearance of animals like elephants, that physically alter the landscape, or apex predators, like tigers, have broad impact on the ecosystems they inhabit. But there is also concern among many experts about those who mastermind the trade.

“There’s growing awareness that the illegal wildlife trade is run by international crime syndicates,” said Guynup. “This $15 to $20 billion a year business is now the fourth largest source of criminal earnings in the world, after guns, drugs, and human trafficking operations… On the black market, rhino horn is worth more per pound than cocaine.”

Money made from the wildlife trade is reported to fund militant groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which uses profits from ivory to pay for military equipment and supplies, said Guynup. In Latin America, there is evidence that some wildlife trafficking is linked to drug cartels.

Wilson Center Public Policy Fellow Sharon Guynup discusses covering the global wildlife trade

International leaders have helped shine a light on the threats posed by the illegal wildlife trade. In 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order creating a Wildlife Task Force. In 2015, Prince William spoke with President Xi Jinping about ivory consumption and China and the United States – the number one and two consumers of ivory respectively – announced that the domestic ivory trade in their countries will be shut down.

Illegal activity of this magnitude cannot continue without some level of corruption. For example, “North Korean embassy officials in both Zambia and Zimbabwe were known to be prime movers of poached rhino horn out of Africa that was smuggled in diplomatic bags and eventually transited to Guanzhong in China and sold on to the Chinese market,” said Thornton. Another case revealed Chinese government officials illegally buying ivory on a visit to Tanzania and bringing it back on President Xi Jingping’s plane.

In Thailand, Guynup recently exposed smuggling at the now-infamous Tiger Temple, where monks at a supposed sanctuary that doubled as a tourist attraction were found to be trafficking tiger parts. As a result of Guynup’s reporting, government officials confiscated 137 tigers and discovered 60 dead cubs frozen or stuffed into jars, tiger skins, and other items that were headed for the market. Three monks and two devotees were charged with possession of endangered species products and there is an ongoing investigation by the Royal Thai Police.

“Not a Matter of East Versus West”

As the numbers of iconic animals dwindle, investors are seizing the opportunity to turn a profit. “Some consumers are now buying tiger bone, rhino horn, and ivory as investment assets, just as they would buy rare art,” said Mills. “They are basically banking on extinction.”

The panelists reiterated that the stated idea behind the amendments to China’s Wildlife Protection Law – that a legal market is necessary to reduce poaching – is dangerous and only increases demand and poaching. “These legal ivory markets not only provide cover for illegal trade, it also removes any stigma from consumers’ minds about ivory consumption,” said Gabriel.

They called on the Chinese government to outlaw industrial wildlife farming. They also highlighted the need for CITES to enforce a 2007 decision that all countries should not breed tigers for their parts or products, and tiger farms should be phased out. They emphasized the importance of public pressure on global leaders, and the continued need for awareness campaigns that educate the public. Few people know that so many of the world’s most recognizable species are being driven to extinction because they have become high-priced products on the black market.

Without action, these animals could soon survive only in zoos or jail-like enclosures on commercial farms. “I personally don’t want to live in a world where rhinos, tigers, bears, and other endangered species are just like cows and pigs. But neither does the majority in China,” said Mills. “This is not a matter of East versus West. As with climate change, this is a matter of taking a stand together for protecting our planet’s wellbeing and natural history.”

Written by Evie Kirschke-Schwartz, edited by Schuyler Null and Sharon Guynup.

Photo Credit: A black rhino photographed at night by remote camera in South Africa, and forest department guards displaying captured tiger skins in Nagpur, India, used with permission courtesy of Steve Winter/National Geographic. 

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China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge US-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more

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