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A question of breeding

China needs to rethink its approach to conservation if it wants to protect its endangered tigers.

Hengdaohezi in China's Heilongjiang province is home to the largest tiger-breeding facility in the world. Portraying itself as a centre for conservation research, it says its primary goal is to breed and save the endangered Siberian tiger. Unfortunately, the centre seems mainly to be a spectacle for tourists. And there are disturbing signs that it may soon begin to defy international conservation rules, by farming tiger body parts for medicinal use (see page 16).

The facility is breeding at least 100 tigers a year but, by taking no note of which animals breed with each other, it may be diluting the genetic stocks of the captive cats indiscriminately. Staff at the centre seem unclear on how to promote conservation, stating a desire, for example, to reintroduce the tigers into the wild without planning the measures that would be needed to enable them to survive.

Reliable information about the facility's plans for its 700 animals is hard to come by. Park officials have denied broad proclamations by government officials of plans to release some 600 tigers into the wild ahead of next year's Beijing Olympics. If this plan went ahead, it would almost certainly fail, exposing animals that have grown accustomed to human attention to the mercy of their wild counterparts, possibly with fatal results.

The pattern at the Hengdaohezi facility is, unfortunately, typical of animal conservation efforts in China. Despite recent improvements in its breeding strategy, the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in Sichuan province, for example, has not been sufficiently open about incidents such as the death of Xiang Xiang, a panda released into the wild last year.

The outlook for the tigers at Hengdaohezi is also coloured by officials at the State Forestry Administration and elsewhere saying that China plans to reopen trade in tiger body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Indeed, farming the tigers for this use was the initial purpose of the Hengdaohezi centre when the government opened it in 1986. It is only thanks to a ban enacted in 1993 in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora that the facility switched to tourism and conservation research.

Giving legal status to the trade in tiger body parts would put more pressure on the wild population.

It is easy, of course, for outsiders to criticize such practices without acknowledging that nations have more things to think about than animal conservation. And some observers have voiced support for the proposed trade in tiger parts, saying that it could allow local people to make a living, while potentially relieving poaching pressure on the wild tiger population.

But most conservationists have condemned any repeal of the ban on the tiger trade. Even if, as proponents suggest, a legal trade did reduce the price of body parts, prices would remain high enough to encourage poaching. Conferring legal status on the trade would, in the end, increase trading volumes and put more pressure on the wild population.

At the Hengdaohezi conservation facility, meanwhile, poor breeding management and detachment from the international conservation community has produced a group of docile animals that would stand little chance of survival in the wild.

Breeding and conservation are two very different things. If China is serious about conserving Siberian tigers, or other endangered species, it should concentrate more on the conservation of natural habitats, together with the careful monitoring of animal health, and less on the rapid breeding of animals in confinement.

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A question of breeding. Nature 449, 2 (2007).

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