TIGER BONE WINE
By Brian K. Weirum
Special to the Chronicle
Ever wonder what happens to the tigers killed by poachers in India and
Nepal? In some cases their bones are steeped in distilled spirits in China to
produce an elixir that’s as incomprehensible to Westerners as it is revered by
devotees of traditional Chinese medicine: tiger bone wine.
At a secret factory in China, a reporter for the South China Morning Post
this past April found 600 tiger skeletons soaking in alcohol to produce
200,000 bottles of wine.
“We can’t advertise our tiger wine in Beijing at the moment because the
Olympics are coming up,” the sales manager at the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park
in Guilin, Xhao Runghui, was quoted in the story as saying. “When the
Olympics are over, we will have more freedom to market our wine. Foreigners just
don’t understand. Chinese people know that tiger is the best medicine in the
world. It cures so many things. It makes you strong. It makes a man more virile.”
The demand has, according to news reports, prompted Beijing to consider
legalizing the trade in tiger parts, which China and other major nations have
banned since 1993.
“The ban is in place but won’t be there forever, given the strong voices
from tiger farmers, experts and society,” warned a deputy director at
China’s State Forestry Administration in Reuters last June.
With its growing affluence, China is by far the world’s largest market
for illicit tiger parts. India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, home to most of
the world’s remaining wild Royal Bengal tigers, have no tradition of using tiger
parts in medicine or religion.
As the supply of tigers was drying up in the Far East, a poaching crisis
emerged in the early 1990s as tigers in the “protected” forests of South Asia
were poached to satisfy the beliefs and customs of those thousands of miles
And there’s evidence that the Chinese hunger for tigers goes beyond
traditional medicine. At a tiger forum in Kathmandu in April, DNA tests were
introduced by the British television network ITN that proved tiger meat was being
served at the restaurant that adjoins the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park.
The “Tiger Park” is actually a tiger farm: The Chinese raise tigers in
pens, as you would cattle or hogs, and there are now more tigers living on
these farms than the estimated 3000 remaining in the wild.
On the surface it seems like a good idea: Grow tigers domestically, so
there’s no incentive to kill those in the wild. This is one of the main
arguments for dropping the ban on the sale of tiger parts. But this is a specious
argument for the following reasons:
•It’s 10 times cheaper to kill a tiger in India and smuggle its parts to
China than to raise one on a farm.
•There is no way to distinguish between the bones — or the skin, heart
or penis — of a wild tiger and those of a farm-raised tiger.
•The international trade of endangered species — from tigers and rhinos
to birds and butterflies — is second only to drug trafficking as the biggest
source of illicit money worldwide. Wildlife crime syndicates operate all over
Asia. The skin of the tiger a poacher was paid less than $1,000 to kill will
fetch up to $10,000 in Lhasa, Tibet. These syndicates will not shut down their
business networks and close their bank accounts because farms are breeding
tigers in China.
•Unleashing the market for tiger parts perpetuates a myth. Tiger claws
are worn as an amulet for courage and good luck. Eyeballs rolled into pills are
believed to cure epilepsy. The tail, when mixed with soup, is thought to cure
diseases of the skin. Tiger penis soup is prized as an aphrodisiac. Bones are
thought to cure rheumatism and prolong life.
•There is no medical or scientific proof of the efficacy of tiger
medicines, but centuries of beliefs and customs empowered by this myth die hard. To
ingest the tiger, it is believed, is to gain some of its mythical strength and
powers. To the true believer, therefore, wouldn’t wild tigers always be
preferable to farmed tigers?
Concern over this issue prompted the 171-nation Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), led by India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia
and the United States, to adopt a resolution in June opposing the resumption of
trade in tigers and mandated that China phase out their tiger farms.
Anyone who has ever experienced a tiger in the wild would argue that
farming one for medicine could not possibly be God’s intended fate for this
No animal has been graced with a greater aura of power and majesty, both
in myth and reality, than the tiger. Ironically, it is this prodigious mantle
of respect that is threatening to lead it down an inexorable path to
“When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more,”
wrote William Beebe, “another heaven and another earth must pass before such a
one can be again.”