In the forests of the night

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE TRADE sanctions imposed by the United States on Taiwan for the latter's alleged reluctance in cracking down on trafficking in tigers and rhinoceroses is bound to further fuel the debate over use of the levers of trade as a means of enforcing environmental discipline. Predictably, the US move has evoked swift and sharp reaction from Taiwan, which stands to lose trade to the tune of $25 million as a result of the sanction. It can be easily conceded that Taiwan's efforts in stopping illegal trade in wildlife are less than convincing. In fact, there are also those who believe that Taiwan's attitude has also frustrated efforts to save the tiger.

Despite this, it is difficult to argue in favour of the Clinton administration's strategy to make Taiwan fall in line. For one, it is difficult to believe that the impact of the ban would be so severe on Taiwan that the erring country would immediately swing into action and plug the illegitimate trade routes. Second, even if the official machinery were to really pull its act together, there is little to suggest that traders of these lucrative items would not find other markets.

In its haste to enforce environmental discipline through sheer muscle, the US government seems to have overlooked the simple fact that Taiwanese animal traffickers are not the only ones who benefit from the killings of these animals. As long as there are others in the chain of smugglers who stand to gain by bestial killing, the tiger will not be safe in its habitat. Poaching, unfortunately, has been made easier by the reluctance, and often hostility, of the people occupying the areas around the forests. It is now a truism that if the endangered wildlife is to be saved, the people in the proximity of the animals' habitat have to be involved. The dismal impact of Project Tiger, if anything, should be sufficient to bring home this point.

The Indian experience clearly shows that government officials -- whether in New Delhi or in Washington -- cannot save the tiger. Thus the US decision is unlikely to enthuse a large section of people concerned about the future of endangered wildlife species. In fact, the US logic for keeping China out of the ambit of the trade sanctions will lend more weight to the argument (as Taiwan has already alleged) that trade sanctions can be used to discipline only the weak.

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