There are only a few dozen tigers left in the wild in China. So how is it that the market in tiger pelts and bones is booming there?
The answer is tiger farms. In one way they resemble puppy mills — they breed large numbers of animals for profit. In two other ways they are very different: puppies leave the mills alive, and the mills are closed to the public. Some say the treatment of tigers on Chinese farms is more like that of chickens or livestock.
In China tiger farms are legal and operate like zoos, charging admission for visitors to see mostly tame animals in barren cages or being forced with beatings to do tricks. Hua Ning, project director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in China, says that tiger farms sometimes pull out tigers’ teeth or claws.
Video courtesy of World Wildlife Fund
The cats are often malnourished, reduced to just skin and bones. However their skin and bones are what sell, the former for rugs, the latter to be ground into supposedly tonic tiger wine. Oh — and penises. They are made into a soup that is believed to improve virility and can cost as much as $320 per bowl. (Pfizer, you are missing a golden opportunity to market Viagra to a population that seems to be in great need of it.)
The farms deny that they are anything but zoos and that they kill or sell the cats. Meanwhile, they struggle to stay afloat financially, spending money that should be going to feed starving tigers on freezing the carcasses of slain cats instead.
We’re talking about a lot of tigers. A report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimates China’s captive tiger population at 5,000-6,000; The Guardian puts the number at 6,000-10,000. If the purpose of the farms was to breed animals for release into the wild those numbers would be cause for celebration, as experts predict that tigers may become extinct in the wild within 20 years. But no farm has ever released a captive tiger into the wild who survived.
It appears that the Chinese government is in on the trade in dead captive tigers, and in fact is helping to stimulate the market. This violates the CITES treaty baning international trade in tiger parts, which China signed. China banned the domestic trade in tiger parts in 1993. But when the United Kingdom and India called on China this year to ban tiger farms China refused, denying that the farms encourage poaching wild tigers. Perhaps in response, the World Bank announced that it would dedicate $100,000 to research how tiger farms affect wild tiger poaching.
The head of EIA’s Tiger Campaign says the evidence exists that China has “domestic policies which stimulate demand and ultimately drive the poaching of wild tigers.” Trading captive tiger products leads to the poaching of wild tigers because of the price differential between the two. Tiger pelts and wine are expensive status symbols, but people with less money want to buy them too. That is where the demand for wild tiger parts come in: they are about a third of the price of captive-grown tiger parts and therefore are accessible to the large consumer base that wants the trappings of luxury.
Only the Chinese government can shut down this industry. It makes symbolic moves in that direction, like closing one farm that starved 11 Siberian tigers to death and was accused of selling bones to manufacturers of tiger wine and tonics. At the same time it permits similar facilities to stay open. An anonymous zoo official called the production of tiger wine an open secret. Ironically, authorities are bribed to look the other way with — you guessed it — bottles of tiger wine.
Fortunately the largest wild tiger population lives in India, and the country is taking new steps to protect them. Last summer India banned tourism in the “core zones” of tiger reserves in response to concerns that too many tourists threatened the reserves and their feline residents.
While this is progress, in the end tigers’ fate lies with the Chinese government. The biggest threat to their survival is poachers, and the biggest market for poachers’ wares is China.