Recently, we had a call from ABC’s 20/20 asking if we would allow them to come up to the ranch to film the bison and chat with us about our views on whether certain species of endangered animals (like tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, etc.) might face less pressure in the wild from poachers if it were made legal to raise them in captivity for harvest. We thought about it, and decided that it might be a good opportunity to discuss the biological and ecological repercussions of this type of idea via a reputable investigative program like 20/20.
So that got us to thinking. What are the reasons to farm, or not farm, endangered species? We hear folks say things like “well, if they were farmed and sold, then wouldn’t that saturate the market and keep people from wanting to poach them?” It seems like such a simple solution on the surface. And, unfortunately, like many “simple solutions” to very complex problems, it isn’t really a solution at all, but much more likely to make the problem even worse than it is at present.
First of all, when we talk about “endangered species”, we are talking about an incredible array of animals and plants, from endangered shrimp species and corals (with little intelligence) all the way to tigers and elephants – some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. So trying to “fix” a problem of endangered species and poaching is a complex one and it’s impossible to throw a net around ”endangered species” and try to come up with a solution that will solve the problem of poaching for all species. If we are going to talk about solutions to poaching endangered species, then we will have to specify the species we’re talking about. Well, Craig and I are most familiar with mammals, so we’ll leave the fisheries solution to others more versed in them then we are, and we’ll stick with the mammals.
I first need to admit that my immediate reaction to farming intelligent and magnificent creatures like the tiger and elephant is that it is a bad idea. But I need to make sure that my initial reaction is as a wildlife ecologist, not just as a person who happens to like intelligent creatures and hates to see them raised in little cages like so many chickens. And I don’t have to think about it long, before a number of problems surface – some from an ethical and humane aspect, and some from a biological and cultural aspect. I’m going to first discuss my objections as a biologist, based on my observations of wildlife species over the years, as well as wildlife management, both in this country as well as the numerous third world countries that I have traveled through as a wildlife biologist.
Although we are certainly not tiger biologists, and don’t know a lot about their ecology, in order to deal with this issue, one really does have to take it “one species at a time”. Endangered species are simply too diverse to make sweeping statements about as a group. So, since we have worked with carnivores, and we have worked with wildlife in third world countries, let’s talk about farming tigers to save them from poaching. Would it work? And if not, why not?
Assumption: Would offering legal tigers for the use of grinding up their various body parts and selling them as medicines alleviate the poaching of wild tigers. My first question in answer to this is, “Why would it?”
1. First of all, the country with the most demand for tiger parts is China. There are many there who believe that the ingesting of various parts of the tiger is good for a wide variety of ailments. And the country that would almost undoubtedly be the major “farmer” for tigers if legalized, would be China. So that’s the country that one would be primarily dealing with if tiger farming were legalized. Fact: It is significantly cheaper to poach a tiger (around $100 of equipment) than it is to raise one in a meat poor and impoverished country like China where some estimates put cost of raising a tiger around $3000. Buying a meat dinner in Asia is costly and difficult to find. Would it really be a good idea to encourage them to raise huge obligate carnivores that need to eat over 20 lbs of meat daily?
2. Another problem with this is that, right now, only a relatively small proportion of Chinese can afford the expensive tiger parts. What happens when, indeed, supply increases and price decreases? Has that ever been a recipe for less demand? Or would we, in fact, find people buying tiger parts for medicines who had never been able to afford them before? People who might of formerly been happy with looking around for alternatives? Would we actually see an increase in demand for tiger parts? With the Chinese population making up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, is it reasonable to expect that we could EVER saturate the market with tiger parts to the point that no one would find the cheap “poaching” less attractive than buying legal parts? Or would we, instead, find even more people wanting to poach tigers – because they now have a legal venue to move them. (Yes, I know that proponents of the farming issue assures us that “legal” animal parts and ‘illegal” animal parts would be kept separate. Honestly – does anyone REALLY think that would work in third world countries? Where many of the governments themselves are active in the drug and illegal animal trafficking? Get real.) I can tell you, having spent time in several third world countries and working with their wildlife, that opening up the legal ability to move domestically raised endangered species is much more likely to simplify the pipeline to market ALL of those parts, wild and domestic. A “farmed” tiger paw looks just like a “wild tiger paw” once the tiger is dead.
3. And we have cultural beliefs in that “Wild is better than domestic” to deal with. This is a common belief (right or wrong) and one that causes a lot of trouble for anyone trying to save wild species. Because there is often a belief that wild is better for one than domestic. Whether it’s true is irrelevant. There is often a general belief in it. I know that an Asian friend of mine, talking to me about the benefits of eating honey with deer antler in it, informed me that all he could afford was the deer antler that was raised domestically but “the wild stuff is much more potent.” Would that be something that one would also see with tigers? That the “wild tiger” is actually better for one than a farmed one?
4. As far as ethical and humane problems, if one would like to know how tigers would be raised in China, we don’t even have to guess at that. We already know, beyond a doubt, about how it will be done. Because they are already farming wildlife species. For example – their bear. Bear gall is another Chinese medicine that some believe has numerous health “benefits. I have friends who have seen some of these bear farms, and the conditions these bears are raised in are horrendous, sometimes screaming and sobbing in pain for years. Should we encourage more farms where we can fully expect the same sort of treatment for additional species? And what does raising animals in those conditions do to the people who see and hear the pain daily. How does that affect them in their outlook at wildlife in particular and, indeed, life itself? How does that effect humans treatment of other humans?
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” ~Gandhi
Well, these are just thoughts running through my head this morning, as we are getting ready to gear up the snowmobiles, chain up the trucks, and try to get out of the seven miles of our “driveway” to meet Jeff Diamond and his crew at the highway. I’ve read several of Jeff’s articles and have enjoyed chatting with him on the phone. He sounds like a fun guy and we’re looking forward to watching a real investigative journalist at work! I have lots of additional thoughts – and some possible solutions – to trying to save endangered species that doesn’t necessitate the farming and all of the negatives that go with it. But I’m out of time for now, so I’ll continue this thread later.