As signatories to a wildlife trade treaty meet in Bangkok, it is useful to note that ‘legal’ selling of existing ivory and tiger skin stockpiles increases the threat to endangered species by creating a smokescreen for illegal sales

Tiger stir-fry, good for health; tiger wine, supposedly with magical, forceful, Elysium-like qualities. These are the dishonest myths peddled by a multimillion dollar poaching trade, bolstered by consumers enjoying the lure of illegal wildlife contraband. Poaching of tigers, so they can be fried, cut up, draped, and efficiently crushed into material that fills little bottles and vials, is the primary and most outstanding reason for tiger mortality in India.

Discussing stockpiles

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the only treaty that regulates international trade in wildlife, has banned any trade in tiger parts, either domestically or internationally. The trade, so far, thus has been understood as illegal. But here is the shocker: a new investigation in China by the United Kingdom-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has found that domestic trade in China in tiger parts, for skins and tiger wine, is allowed, nurtured, and legalised. As per the report, vague rules — deliberately kept vague — allow the use of stockpiles of tiger parts, from Chinese captive bred tigers, for tiger wine and skins. This brings us to a central concern for Indian wildlife: stockpiles of animal parts, whether it is tigers in China or Vietnam, or ivory from African elephant range states, is the most imminent threat to Indian wild counterparts which are poached. Stockpiles provide a smokescreen for illegally procured animals, they represent domestic intent for trade; a currency so to speak, towards the idea that some of the most endangered animals in the world are worth more dead than alive.

CITES has begun its 16th Conference of Parties (CoP16) in Bangkok, Thailand (March 3-14). The issue of stockpiles and their sale will come up again, but these international negotiations, while otherwise useful, will be far from adequate to secure our wildlife. As long as stockpiles exist, the only way for India to save its elephants, tigers (and other widely poached animals) is to enforce domestic protection.

CITES classifies species under different Appendices, consequent to international threats from poaching and rarity of the species. Elephants, both Asian and African, are on Appendix 1, with a ban on trade in ivory. Several African states allow trophy hunting and management-based culling quotas for shooting elephants. There are thus tonnes of ivory in stockpiles in several African countries. Consequently, several countries demand licences for the legal sale of elephant ivory. In 2007, CITES allowed a one-off sale of ivory in government-held stockpiles for Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. At CoP16, CITES will discuss the workings of a “decision-making mechanism” for further sale of ivory. While this mechanism will veer towards the use of the precautionary principle, at least on paper, the very creation of such a mechanism implies future trade in ivory. This will remain a pulsating threat to wild elephants in India and African countries. Consider the numbers: a new study shows that 11,000 elephants have been poached in Gabon since 2004; this year, poachers in Kenya killed a family of 11 elephants. Last year, in what is perhaps a newly documented trend, poachers shot down thousands of elephants, using machine guns fired from Ugandan helicopters, in Congo (and perhaps in other countries as well). In India, the forest department works hard to ensure the safety of elephants, and the threat of poachers, who are adaptive in the killing of several “lucrative” species as well as enforcers who get in the way, is always a real one.

Poaching

Legal sales, one-off or otherwise, whether of tiger parts or elephant tusks, can only be a shot in the arm, a booster into the veins, of this bloody trade. Those who follow the patterns of the poaching trade clearly conclude that sales of animal parts, even if the sources are deemed “legal,” always increase poaching. It is after all, cheaper to poach an animal than to kill it after years of supporting it to adulthood. For instance, to tackle the question of tiger poaching, a CITES notification to all parties states that “Parties with intensive operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale shall implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to conserving wild tigers; tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.” The EIA findings reflect otherwise, clearly indicating that captive bred tigers are being sold for tiger wine in China. And more crucially for India, regular poaching of our wild tigers (according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 10 tigers have been poached this year) destined for a Chinese market, shows us that any trade in tigers, Chinese or Indian, wild or captive, will only help the illegal trade/poaching.

The other question for us to ponder over is where the money gathered from this lucrative poaching goes. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an answer. Last year, in a precedent setting speech in Washington DC at a Partnership meeting on Wildlife Trafficking, she observed, “Now, some of you might be wondering why a Secretary of State is keynoting an event about wildlife trafficking and conservation, or why we are hosting this event at the State Department in the first place.” She added, “Over the past few years wildlife trafficking has become more organized, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before… By some estimates, the black market in wildlife is rivalled in size only by trade in illegal arms and drugs. Today, ivory sells for nearly $1,000 per pound. Rhino horns are literally worth their weight in gold, $30,000 per pound. Trafficking relies on porous borders, corrupt officials, and strong networks of organised crime, all of which undermine our mutual security. I’m asking the intelligence community to produce an assessment of the impact of large-scale wildlife trafficking on our security interests so we can fully understand what we’re up against. It’s something else when you’ve got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife.” In India, there is evidence to suggest that insurgents used the money from sale of rhino horn to fund their activities in Assam, and poaching in Maoist controlled areas is rampant (though it is not conclusively known who is poaching animals).

Given the global scenario, at this CITES meeting, India will find itself sandwiched between demand and supply forces: both legal, and illegal in the garb of legal. This outlines with even more urgency the need to keep our own forests safe, and not depend on transnational regimes to save our species.

(The views expressed are personal. Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. E-mail: n.sinha@bnhs.org)

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