By Dean Irvine
Could "tiger farms"—where the animals would be bred in captivity then culled for their body parts—help save the critically endangered animal in the wild?
"Regulated tiger farms could provide enough tiger products to reduce the pressure on wild tigers from poaching," said Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center, a non-governmental organization that looks at market-based approaches to conservation.
The idea has been put forward by owners of China's tiger breeding centers that have remained open as entertainment parks since China banned the international trade in tiger parts in 1993.
Anderson says that the focus on the issue of killing the animals means many animal rights activists lose sight of the potential of what he calls a "conservation-commodity solution."
"Tiger farms will help reduce the demand for wild tigers if the market is well-regulated. It would be wrong to say that by eliminating the market we eliminate the demand for tigers," said Anderson in reference to the continuation of the illegal trade in tiger parts, which are are prized for having healing and aphrodisiac qualities and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
"Like elephants, there are ways to capitalize on the value of these animals and conserve them."
A controlled market for tiger parts, done in tandem with the creation of fenced tiger sanctuaries for the animals in the wild, could stimulate tiger tourism, Anderson said.
It isn't the ban that hasn't worked, but those enforcing it haven't done all that can be done to make it work.
-Debbie Banks, EIA
Despite the trade ban, the illicit sale of tiger bones and parts has continued. Illegal poaching and the destruction of tigers' natural habitats have contributed to the decline of the wild tiger population to critical levels, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The WWF estimates that the number of tigers left in the wild has dwindled to around 3,200, less than the number held in captivity, with only around 50 in China. It has warned that tigers may become extinct in the wild in less than a generation.
At a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva last year, Keshav Varma, leader of the World Bank's Global Tiger Initiative, said in a statement that legalized tiger farming is "too great a gamble for the world to take. We cannot know for sure if tiger farming will work. And if it does not work the downside risks are just too high-- irreversible harm."
Debbie Banks from the Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) also believes that any sanctioned trade in tiger parts from tiger farms would "just perpetuate demand."
The EIA also contends that wild tigers would still be attractive to poachers, pointing out that they would only incur the cost of a bullet as opposed to around $4,000 to raise a tiger to maturity in a breeding facility -- and that farms could provide cover for the "laundering" of illegal wild tiger goods if not regulated properly.
"The people in favor of tiger farming say that the trade ban hasn't worked so let's just try something else," Banks said. "Our argument is that it isn't the ban that hasn't worked, but those enforcing it haven't done all that can be done to make it work."
Not enough is being done to police the illegal trade that does take place, said John Sellar, chief enforcement officer for CITES.
"We could make good inroads [into reducing the trade] if we got our collective acts together on this. While there are many good seizures and people have gone to jail for a long time, in countries including China, often there is no follow-up in the country the tiger parts have come from," he told CNN.
Like elephants, there are ways to capitalize on the value of these animals and conserve them.
--Terry Anderson, PERC
"On the positive side, many believe that Beijing's 1993 international ban helped to change attitudes, particularly in China, and reduce demand for tiger parts in Asia, especially in traditional Chinese medicine."
"Traditional Chinese medicine does not need tiger bones to save lives," said Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine."
"What we are dealing with is an old tradition, an old belief that tiger wine can make their bones stronger. That is not medicine, that is from old tradition."
The existence of former tiger farms, however, remains a concern for conservation groups. Before the international trade ban, tiger breeding facilities in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam bred tigers to supply a market for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine and luxury items such as tiger skins and tiger bone wine.
China's breeding facilities -- the Xiong Sen Tiger and Bear Village in Guilin, and Siberian Tiger Park outside Harbin -- have remained open since the ban, operating as wildlife parks for visitors.
With hundreds of tigers sitting within their fences, a change in rules would mean the park owners were sitting on a potential gold mine.
While China has signed the CITES ban on trade in tiger parts, Sellar believes that there could be more clarity in the official Chinese position that currently states: "China has not any plan to use the captive bred tiger bones as clinical medicine at this moment."
"If it did change its position [on the trade in tiger parts] it would send very conflicting messages," Sellar said.
CNN contacted China's State Forestry Administration for comment but received no response. However, last December, the Chinese government reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining the ban on the trade in tigers, and vowed to increase policing.
The most pressing issue is that people don't get too hung-up on the issue of tiger farms and away from the issue of protecting the wild tigers, Sellers said.
"If you look at the history of our efforts to protect the tiger and were to calculate the amount of money spent on them, you would say we have failed," he said.
"I don't think the man on the street really appreciates how critically endangered these animals are. They are literally on the brink."