Young, healthy tigers jump through rings of fire, sit upright on cue, clawing at the air, and perform other well-choreographed circus tricks. Enthusiastic crowds cheer. After the show, some pay extra to hold small, cuddly cubs.
But those who visit these tiger attractions in China have no idea of the suffering behind the scenes or the dark commerce that keeps them afloat.
If they were to slip behind the scenes, they’d see concentration-camp level suffering. Huge numbers of tigers are crammed into barred, concrete quarters or packed into dusty, treeless compounds behind chain link fences. Most of the cats are gaunt, wasted to striped skin and bone. Some are grossly deformed by inbreeding or poor nutrition. Some are blind.
Many of these operations are run as tourist destinations—and may masquerade as conservation initiatives—but these facilities are essentially factories that breed tigers for the commercial sale of their parts.
The country’s 200 or so “tiger farms” are working overtime to meet a new, growing market: Tiger products have become coveted status symbols among China’s elite, much like sporting a Rolex watch or serving a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
Tiger farms are supplying a shadowy underground trade, which “serves only to stimulate consumer demand, creating a massive enforcement challenge and wholly undermining the efforts of the international community to protect tigers,” says Shruti Suresh, a wildlife campaigner with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
A tiger carcass is now worth a small fortune. With just 3,000 tigers (from six different subspecies) left in the wild, this luxury market could be the death knell for wild tigers.
Buying or gifting expensive tiger products has become a fashionable way to gain favor or flaunt wealth and power among China’s most influential people, a group that reportedly includes wealthy businessmen, government officials and military officers. China is, by far, the largest consumer of tiger and many other endangered species parts.
It’s created a growing clamor for tiger pelts that are used in high-end décor and for tiger bone wine, made by marinating a tiger skeleton in rice wine—which can sell for $500 a bottle. Tiger meat is sometimes served at fashionable dinner parties where guests may have been treated to a “visual feast” before eating: watching their entrée killed and butchered before them.
For decades, tiger derivatives used in traditional Chinese medicine drove the black market trade. Today, tiger parts are “consumed less as medicine and more as exotic luxury products,” according to a recent report. “ ‘Wealth’ [is] replacing ‘health’ as a primary form of consumer motivation,” it says. With tigers and other Asian big cats rapidly disappearing, the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) commissioned the report for review at a Standing Committee meeting in Geneva last July.
This current enterprise isn’t about upholding sacred cultural tradition. Nor is it providing necessary medical treatment, says Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It’s simply about money, influence and speculation.
Industrial-scale tiger farming makes millions of dollars for a handful of people. Some speculators are collecting tiger skin rugs and cases of tiger bone wine (vintage brewed from wild tigers is most valuable), watching their investment grow as the numbers of wild tigers dwindle. They’re banking on extinction.
Meanwhile, tiger farming is a booming business. About twice as many tigers are living miserable, caged lives in China as all of the world’s remaining wild tigers put together. The country’s captive tiger population has skyrocketed from about 20 in 1986 to between 5,000 and 6,000 today. (Three other countries also farm tigers, but on a radically smaller scale. Vietnam is thought to hold 127, Lao PDR, 400, and Thailand, 1,000. They, too, trade illegally in tigers.)
Captive tigers are not insurance against extinction: they in no way help wild populations. They’re badly interbred and a tiger raised by humans has never been successfully reintroduced to the wild.
“A lot of biologists view farmed tigers as already dead because they have nothing to do with conservation,” says Judy Mills, author of the forthcoming book “Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species.”
Industrial breeding facilities, “speed-breed” to boost production: mothers usually birth two to three cubs; if they’re promptly taken from her, she can bear another litter in as little as five months. Just one breeding center, the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Garden in northeast Heilongjiang Province, is expecting 100 cubs to be born over the coming year.
The largest of these, the Xiongshen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in Guilin, held about 1,500 tigers at last count in 2010. Seed financing came from China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) when it launched in 1993. Ironically, this agency both enforces wildlife protection—and promotes farming of endangered species.
Tiger farming is legitimate business, sanctioned under a 1989 law that encourages breeding and utilization of wildlife. Sales of tiger bone and other tiger parts were, in theory, banned in 1993. However, it seems that commercial tiger breeding facilities are essentially skin and bone farms.
At July’s CITES Standing Committee meeting, Chinese officials finally admitted what the world has known for some time: they are licensing sales of tiger pelts. In 2013, EIA revealed that legally-issued permits are regularly reused, making it disturbingly easy to launder skins from tigers killed in India and elsewhere. In addition to selling pelts, many tiger farms stockpile frozen carcasses—and brew tiger bone wine from their skeleton supply.
But it’s even worse than that. A factory in Changsha appears to be cranking out tiger bone wine. EIA investigators discovered that the Hunan Sanhong Biotechnology Company in Changsha is apparently manufacturing “Real Tiger Wine” on a commercial scale. Evidence suggests that the State Forestry Administration and other agencies secretly authorized the venture—and sales are not public: regional agents distribute directly to elite clients, including restaurants and guesthouses catering to high-ranking government officials.
The recent CITES report corroborates this. “Internal trading privileges” are allowed for companies dealing in tiger skins and body parts “produced mainly but not exclusively from captive breeding,” it says.
Exactly how many tigers it takes to supply a wine factory—and China’s luxury market—is anyone’s guess. But this illegal enterprise could not be thriving if government officials were not involved, invested, benefitting—or turning a blind eye. It’s become a national embarrassment for China, flying in the face of efforts by President Xi Jinping to root out corruption.
Despite claims that they have completely curbed international trafficking, the country has done little to disrupt the crime networks that control the illegal transnational trade in tiger parts—or to eliminate the nation’s voracious appetite for tiger parts and products, says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Wildlife trafficking, now valued at about $19 billion a year, has traditionally ranked low on most governments’ list of priorities. But the ongoing massacre of elephants and rhinos has grabbed headlines and sparked action. (Though fewer tigers are being killed, there are far less left to kill—and they hover closer to extinction.)
An international summit in London in January brought together ministers and heads of state from 50 nations to galvanize a global fight against wildlife crime. They signed a declaration stating that, “Poaching and trafficking undermines the rule of law and good governance, and encourages corruption. It is an organised and widespread criminal activity, involving transnational networks.”
In 2013, Achim Steiner, who heads the United Nations Environment Program, called for a global crackdown, and the U.N. Security Council, General Assembly and other U.N. bodies have taken notice. Interpol is now leading global enforcement operations.
Large conservation organizations claim to be be saving tigers, but the fact is that numbers continue to plummet—and the Chinese demand for tiger products is wiping them out faster than any other threat.
Tiger experts agree that without urgent action to phase out tiger farms and end all commerce in tigers from all sources, wild tigers will disappear—and soon.
WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that combats illegal wildlife trade, says it very succinctly, with film stars Jackie Chan and Jiang Wen speaking up for tigers. Their message is broadcast in public service announcements, posted on billboards and Tweeted across social media: “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
For more information: Check out the July 2014 report, “Caged Assets: Tiger Farming and Trade.”
Follow Sharon Guynup on Twitter: @sguynup
Next up: In part eight of the Talking Tigers series, I’ll share new information on a threat to one of the most endangered tiger subspecies–the Siberian tiger.