China’s Threat to Wild Tigers

Earlier this year, a police raid on a house party in Leizhou, Guangdong Province, in southern China, revealed a decadent diversion apparently popular among some of China’s elite: watching a tiger being slaughtered and butchered, then gorging on meat that’s considered an exotic delicacy.

Fifteen people were arrested and charged with killing more than 10 tigers in the past few years. One of them, a real estate developer identified as Mr. Xu, pleaded guilty to consuming three tigers in 2013. A prosecutor said he had “a quirky appetite for eating tiger penis and drinking tiger blood.”

The Nanfang Daily reported that these “visual feasts” had become fashionable among wealthy businessmen and government officials. One official told China Daily that the privileged staged these dinners “as a form of entertainment and to show off their wealth.”

The demise of the tiger, the world’s most endangered big cat, was hastened by demand for traditional Chinese medicine, which ascribed healing properties to nearly every part of the cat, from whiskers to tail.

But that has changed, says a new report commissioned by the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which regulates that trade under a treaty signed by 180 nations.

“ ‘Wealth’ [is] replacing ‘health’ as a primary form of consumer motivation,” the report says. Tiger parts “are now consumed less as medicine and more as exotic luxury products.”

This demand is about prestige and money. The cats’ magnificent pelts are among the most sought-after items (displayed as luxury home décor), along with “bone-strengthening wine” (an exorbitantly costly elixir made by steeping a tiger skeleton in rice wine).

It’s a deadly commerce fueled by China’s commercial captive breeding farms, which hold more than 5,000 tigers and maintain stockpiles of frozen carcasses and body parts. These farms spur poaching of wild tigers by perpetuating the market in tiger parts.

China figures prominently in this illegal commerce and will be a focus as convention representatives meet in Geneva next month to discuss ways to stop the trade in tigers and other big Asian cats.

When Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” at the turn of the 20th century, about 100,000 wild tigers roamed the Asian continent. Today, perhaps 3,200 remain scattered across 13 countries, wiped out by trophy hunts in India, the 1960s fashion craze for fur in the United States and Europe, disappearing habitat, conflict with people and poaching.

Tigers command a small fortune on the black market, and demand is rising. A loophole in the country’s wildlife protection law allows the breeding and “utilization” of certain products derived from captive-bred endangered species. This has made industrial-scale “tiger farming” big business. The number of captive tigers skyrocketed from about 85 in 1993 to 5,000-plus today. (Vietnam, Laos and Thailand also breed tigers, but on a much smaller scale.) Farming continues despite a 2007 decision by the convention that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”

In 2010, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the bleak conditions in China’s commercial breeding facilities came under scrutiny from conservation groups and the media. Gruesome images documented tigers crammed into cramped, decrepit, concrete enclosures. Many were emaciated, reduced to striped bags of bones. Some were deformed by inbreeding.

Little seems to have changed since then.

Some farms are run as animal parks, where the few healthy animals perform before cheering tourists. The rest are hidden from public view. Though these parks are thinly disguised as educational or conservation initiatives, they in no way help the species. A captive tiger has never been successfully released into the wild.

The two largest breeding outfits (which more than 1,000 tigers each) were begun with start-up financing from the State Forestry Administration, an agency with contradictory roles: protecting wildlife while also overseeing and promoting intensive tiger farming.

While breeding is legal in China, the sale of tiger parts is not. Skins from captive animals are exempt if they have forestry administration permits, supposedly issued for educational or scientific purposes.

But undercover operatives working for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based group focused on exposing environmental crime, found the licensing process rife with improprieties.

In 2012, they encountered taxidermists preparing skins for private customers using forestry administration permits. Those documents seemed to be regularly reused — making it easy to launder skins from illicit sources — and investigators were also offered skins lacking any paperwork.

Little is known about the scale and oversight of this market. But the convention’s report says that China allows “internal trading privileges” for companies dealing in tiger skins and body parts “produced mainly but not exclusively from captive breeding.”

The report also said that tiger parts amassed by breeding farms were finding their way into the market. “Given the increasing detection of frozen carcasses in illegal trade... as well as the continued production in China of wine suggestively marketed as containing tiger, it appears that government oversight of privately held stocks may not be sufficient to guarantee their security,” the report said.

But public opinion in China is slowly turning against this “utilization” of wildlife, especially among younger generations. Public service announcements, billboards and social media campaigns have helped. The film stars Jackie Chan and Jiang Wen appear in ads saying, “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

An outcry over wildlife consumption by the wealthy led China’s legislature to stipulate this spring that those who ate or bought endangered species could face 10 years in prison. But it’s unclear whether caged tigers are considered endangered under these rules.

Because the scope of China’s trade in tiger products remains so murky, other nations must demand answers and accountability from China at the convention’s meeting next month.

We need to know, for instance, whether and how deeply government officials are involved in the black market and whether China is tacitly allowing the domestic sale of tiger products. It’s an embarrassing list of questions for President Xi Jinping, who has made rooting out corruption a top priority.

Wild tigers are on life support. The world must persuade China to phase out its tiger farms, end all commerce in tigers and commit to cooperative international conservation and enforcement efforts. If not, the largest of the world’s cats will not survive.

Sharon Guynup is a journalist and the co-author, with the photographer Steve Winter, of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat.

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