Thailand's tiger economy
By Michael Spencer
BANGKOK - Thailand may no longer classify as a "tiger" economy, but if a recent report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is correct, the country's illegal trade in tigers and tiger-based products is a flourishing business.
The EIA report roundly criticizes the Thai authorities for non-enforcement of domestic legislation that prohibits the trade in tigers and tiger products. It cited a persistent lack of interest and effort on the part of the authorities to control a growing domestic and international trade that has decimated the wild tigers over most of their range.
Worldwide, wild tiger populations have declined 95 percent in the past 100 years. The Bali and Java tiger are now extinct and the Indo-Chinese subspecies, whose primary range is in Thailand, is now severely threatened. There are now more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are to be found in total in the wild.
Historically, Thailand has a spotty record on the issue of wildlife trafficking. Although it signed the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1973, it took the threat of wildlife trade sanctions in 1991 to force the Kingdom to enact the Wild Animals Preservation and Protection Act that adopts the CITES convention onto its domestic statute books.
It is the enforcement of this law that the EIA report has called into question. Debbie Banks, senior campaigner with the group, accuses Thailand of turning a blind eye to the trafficking of tigers. "There is no enforcement of existing legislation to prevent this illegal trade and they have consistently resisted international pressure to tackle the problem."
Banks says that despite having laws banning the hunting, import, export and trade in tigers, Thailand is a prominent consumer of tiger parts and derivatives. "Thailand has not only become a conduit for the tiger trade from neighboring countries but has an established manufacturing industry churning out tiger products for domestic and international consumption."
Evidence collected by a team of EIA investigators identified three factories in Thailand that are manufacturing and distributing tiger-based derivative products. The factories operate with such impunity that they include their addresses on the packaging. The investigators also discovered at least 10 pharmacies in Bangkok's Chinatown district that openly display and sell patent medicines containing tiger derivatives.
Tiger bones have traditionally been used in Chinese medicine to prepare anti-rheumatism potions and tiger penis is a favored as an aphrodisiac.
Manop Lauprasert, of the Thai Royal Forestry Department and Director of Thailand's CITES office, hotly contests the EIA claims of official indifference. In response to the report, he told local media his officers had cracked down on both the domestic and international trade in wildlife species.
Saying that the tiger products produced and sold in Thailand likely came from tigers bred in captivity, he defended the practice and said that as the country had its own breeding centers, the animal should no longer be listed as an endangered species. However, under the Wild Animals Protection and Preservation Act all trade in tigers and tiger parts is illegal whether they are captive bred or not. He also claimed that there are around 1,000 tigers left in the wild in Thailand, a figure that is ridiculed by most wildlife biologists.
Dr Tony Lynam, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Thailand Program, has been monitoring wild tiger populations with field surveys since 1990. He says that even 10 years ago the optimistic estimate was not more than 250 animals in the wild. Given the high levels of poaching and habitat loss since then, he said that today a figure of 150 would probably be more accurate.
The EIA report also attacked Thailand's lack of transparency regarding the regulation and monitoring of its tiger breeding centers. Banks said that unregulated breeding facilities can easily be used as fronts for trafficking of wild tigers and tiger products. The EIA says it has evidence to support their contention that this is already the case.
The report focuses on the largest and most famous of Thailand's breeding farms, the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo south of Chonburi, which has between 180 and 400 tigers at its facility. The zoo staff claim that 300 cubs are born there a year. If this is so, the report says, there are hundreds of tigers that remain unaccounted for by the facility.
EIA investigators said they unearthed clues to where the missing tigers had gone. They had to look no further than the Sri Racha Health Traditional Clinic on the zoo's premises where they found tiger bone pills for sale manufactured by the Ouay Un factory in Bangkok. In a separate investigation by the environmental group TRAFFIC, a store-owner in Bangkok's Chinatown said he regularly buys tiger penis from the Sri Racha Zoo.
The report also cites a source who revealed that about 100 captive-bred tiger cubs a year are smuggled out of Thailand in cages concealed in fruit crates destined for the China market.
Biologists believe that rationale for unregulated tiger breeding farms is of dubious scientifically value due to the cross breeding of sub-species. They also believe that the existence of a legal trade would place enormous pressure on the remaining tigers in the wild. "It's much cheaper to shoot a wild tiger than it is to breed one in captivity," comments Dr Lynam.
In 1990 and 1992, China made initial attempts to seek international approval for trading in products from its own breeding centers, but withdrew a formal proposal when they realized there was no international support for such a move.
The EIA has announced its intention to increase pressure on the Thai authorities to get tough on enforcement by calling upon the CITES standing committee meeting in Paris this week to immediately dispatch a technical and political mission to Thailand to review legislation and enforcement activities in the country.
A negative finding by the mission could eventually lead to a total export ban on all CITES listed species which would deal a heavy blow to Thailand's legal export of crocodile skins that is far more valuable than the profits from the illegal tiger trade.
source: atimes.com, 19 Jun 2001