Richard Graham is MP for Gloucester and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group.
There are few species as iconic as big cats, and yet nearly half of the wild cat species are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, and 80 per cent of the species’ populations are shrinking.
There are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild, and more than half of these can be found in India, where conservation groups and the Government have worked to protect them. However, China’s market for big cat parts threatens to thwart this fragile progress.
If China is committed to becoming a global environmental leader, and an ‘ecological civilization’ as President Xi Jinping has pledged, then it must address its record on conservation and its contribution to the decline of vital species. Just as the UK worked with international leaders at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference last year to further the ban on ivory, so we must work with our friends in China to save the world’s big cats.
International trade in the parts and products of tigers and leopards has been banned for decades. However, there are around 6,000 tigers kept in captivity in China, where it is legal to trade in the parts of captive-bred tigers. These ‘farms’ are used to intensively breed tigers to sell their body parts for traditional medicine, wine, and taxidermy.
In 2007, the convention responsible for regulating international trade in wildlife (CITES), adopted a decision that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts, including domestic trade. However, China has not implemented this decision. Thousands of parts from tigers and other big cats with similar bans have since been seized by authorities showing the difficulty of enforcing such bans internationally, especially without support from the main consumer country for closing the market. Trade in medicines containing leopard bone also continues to be legal in China.
This is not only a problem for China and its local tiger population, which is close to extinction. It is also an issue for India, where most of the wild tigers in the world live and are protected. Indian conservationists and government officials work with local people to develop solutions which protect wild tigers while reducing human-wildlife conflicts. We saw this careful balance during Sir David Attenborough’s Dynasties documentary last year, tracking the tigress Raj Bhera and her cubs.
However, what we didn’t see was the way in which these tigers are at risk of poaching to meet demand for their parts in China, as well as to feed the appetite for ‘purer’ wild tiger parts, increasing the pressure on these populations.
China has a small number of wild tigers in the border region between its north-eastern provinces and the Russian forests, and has recently established a national park to preserve their habitat. Yet despite this positive investment, China continues to be the world’s largest destination for tiger parts and derivatives and the largest farming country.
No less than 42 per centof the tigers seized from illegal trade since 2010 are suspected to come from captive sources, with this stimulating consumer demand and driving the market for big cat parts. In 1993, China banned the trade in tiger bone for medicinal purposes, however in October this ban was repealed. Since then, due to careful campaigning and pressure from groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the repeal has been put on hold – but not reversed – giving us a vital opportunity to make a difference.
Six months ago we hosted the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Conference in London, leading the world to create important new commitments to protect elephants and target the criminal funds generated from the IWT, working with international banks. I’m proud of this work, as well as implementing our own ivory ban which China also adopted last year.
While I know there is more to do to save these giant mammals, the next focus needs to be to protect tigers and big cats. We should support the work of countries like India to protect their native populations, and utilise our important diplomatic history with China to ensure that they ban tiger farming and the sale of big cat parts.
In May, CITES parties will reconvene to consider the next step in international conservation efforts to end the illegal wildlife trade. The Indian Government has put forward a suite of recommendations to protect their tigers, including country-specific measures to tackle tiger farms. Along with 70 colleagues, I’ve written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to seek assurances that we will support India and other conservation efforts to protect big cats, using our role in CITES meetings to help influence meaningful change and implement recommendations that stop tiger farming.
For a superpower like China, the association with the decimation of the world’s most well-known and loved wild animals, even to their extinction, will not help their re-adoption of a global leadership role. We need the Chinese Government’s help to clamp down on activities that give China a bad name, and to take significant steps as they have done with their world leading ivory ban.
In our strategic partnership with China, I hope we can use this relationship to encourage our partners to make the right choice and ban the sale of big cat parts and the use of tiger farms.
For the sake of these magnificent animals we must act now before it’s too late and our children’s children grow up in a world without them.