India will on Wednesday call on China to increase its efforts to clamp down on trade in tiger parts even as Beijing mulls lifting a trade ban, a move conservationists say will deal a fatal blow to India’s wild tigers.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation among conservationists in China that the government will lift a ban on the internal trade in tiger body parts. Much of the poaching in India is driven by demand from China, which has the world’s biggest market for tiger parts. In China, the use of tiger bone is common in the prescriptions of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the popularity of which has soared in recent years with increasing healthcare costs.

Surge in tiger deaths

There has been a surge in tiger deaths in India in 2009, with at least 68 killings, according to reports. India has only around 1,300 wild tigers. There are few wild tigers left in China. While the Chinese government imposed a ban on trade in tiger parts in 1993, it also simultaneously sanctioned the setting up of controversial tiger farms from where parts from the animals are harvested.

There are around 4,000 captive tigers in such farms. Conservationists have called for closing down these farms as, they say, it encourages the consumer demand for tiger products. India will join those voices on Wednesday, when Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests (Independent Charge) Jairam Ramesh meets Zhou Shengxian, China’s Minister for Environment Protection.

Mr. Ramesh told The Hindu that India would ask China to phase out these farms and strengthen enforcement.

“It is an important issue which has to be raised, as it is a problem of both demand and supply,” Mr. Ramesh said. “A lot of the parts are smuggled through Nepal and Myanmar, but most of the demand comes from China. We are going to ask the Chinese to co-operate with us and also strengthen enforcement.”

Cross-border trafficking

He would ask China to “provide full co-operation to India through liaising with Nepal for controlling cross-border trafficking,” and to send a clearer message to consumers.

Chinese conservationists say the trade in tiger parts has generally been on the decline since the government imposed a ban in 1993, but caution there is a real possibility of a lifting of the ban. The consequences of legalising trade, conservationists say, will be catastrophic for India’s tigers.

“The Chinese government thinks the farms are not that big of a negative for conservation,” Xu Hongfa, China co-ordinator of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, told The Hindu. “The question of tiger farms is a great debate right now in China and it is a difficult problem to solve. We worry that if China reopens trade, it will increase consumer demand which will be difficult to control.”

China, like India, is a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has called for an end to the breeding of tigers for their parts. On Tuesday, the CITES issued a first of its kind notification asking countries like China that have set up tiger farms to report on steps they had taken to clamp down on trade.

“The CITES has sent out a message that tigers should not be bred for their parts,” said Samir Sinha of WWF-India. “By legalising even a small part of the market, China will create additional demand that does not exist today. And the logistics of keeping this market clean are impossible. We are very, very concerned that if such a ban is lifted, it will be the last nail in the coffin for wild tigers.”

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