Plans being considered in China to test the viability of re-opening the domestic trade in tigers and their parts, banned since 1993, would spell disaster for the already critically endangered species, according to WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and IUCN (The World Conservation Union).

WWF, the global conservation organisation, and TRAFFIC believe that the re-opening of the trade of captive bred tigers for traditional medicine from so-called “tiger farms” for sales in China’s domestic market, would threaten the world’s remaining wild tiger populations. Tiger bone has been used as a treatment for rheumatism and related ailments for thousands of years in traditional Asian medicine.

“This could be the final act that drives the tiger towards extinction. We’re afraid that poachers living near the world’s last populations of tigers may kill them to supply illegal markets that are likely to develop alongside any new legal ones,” says Dr Susan Lieberman, Director WWF Global Species Programme. The opening of the trade would also send the wrong signal to consumers, who may think it is acceptable to buy tiger parts, whether tiger bone in eastern China or tiger skins in western China, according to WWF and TRAFFIC.

The world’s tigers are at a record low, numbering around 5000. The domestic trade ban in China in 1993 gave a welcome boost to tiger conservation by curbing demand for tiger products from other range states such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Indonesia. “If this goes ahead, it will undo all the excellent work the Chinese government has done over the last 12 years,” says Steven Broad, Executive Director TRAFFIC International. "China has led by example in the past by imposing harsh penalities on wildlife trade criminals and through determined enforcement measures. To go back on all this, especially when there are alternatives for use in traditional medicine, just doesn’t make sense.”

Pressure is also increasing on Asian big cats because of a rapidly growing market for Asian tiger and leopard skins in Tibetan regions, with animals illegally hunted every year throughout their range to meet this market demand. In August, in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, TRAFFIC investigators found 23 shops in the city’s main square openly selling skins and parts of tigers and leopards. WWF and TRAFFIC are also calling on authorities in the region to curb the demand for Asian big cat skins and parts, and strengthen enforcement efforts along trade routes, in transit markets and markets in Asia.