Tiger sanctuaries selling bone for Chinese medicine against international law
The wine, which it is claimed, helps to cure conditions including arthritis and rheumatism, is advertised openly and sold at the parks.
The revelations that the parks are breaking the law are embarrassing for the Chinese government which is trying to promote a positive image of the country in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August.
International trade in tiger body parts and derivatives is banned under UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Domestic trade is prohibited under national law and reinforced by a special State Council order in 1993.
Conservationists said lifting the ban would increase demand and lead to a surge in poaching that could push the highly endangered tiger into extinction.
Poaching has reduced the number of tigers in the wild to around 5,000 to 7,000, compared to 100,000 in the early 1900s. At one point in the 1970s, the number fell to 4,000.
Investigators from the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency found tiger bone wine advertised for sale at the Qinhuangdao wildlife rescue centre, near the beach resort of Beidaihe in Hebei Province, four hours drive from Beijing where the Olympic Games will be held in August.
The price was US$240.00 (£120) for 500ml, with a minimum order of 1500 ml.
Staff at the centre showed investigators what they claimed was a permit from the State Forestry Administration allowing them to sell the wine on the premises but the researchers were unable to confirm its authenticity.
The wine was on sale at the neighbouring Qinhuangdao wild animal park. Prices were US $186.00 (£93) for 500 ml bottles and US$ $83.00 (£41.50) for 250 ml.
At the park, which is open to the public and includes a “circus” of performing tigers, lions bears and primates, investigators found posters and packaging for Beidacang Tiger Wine, stating clearly that it contained tiger bone.
One of the shops was closed but had a sign on the window with a mobile phone number for visitors who wanted to buy the wine.
Staff invited the researchers into a storeroom where they opened cases of the tiger bone wine. Ms Huang, the business manager, said it was made from their own tigers that had been killed in fights.
Ms Huang said the wine was bought by regular customers, including one who bought two cases at a time to distribute as gifts.
The wine was brewed for two years at the park, she said, but declined to show investigators where or how it was produced.
At the Badaling safari park, on the outskirts of Beijing, investigators were offered “deluxe” gift packs of tiger bone wine for US $286.00 (£143).
Staff said the park was owned by a businessman from Daqing in northeast China, who also owns the Qinhuangdao park and two others at Xiamen in Fujian province and Nanchang in Jiangxi province.
They said there were between 40 and 50 tigers in the park and they were all bred on site.
The skins were kept but not sold – trade in skins is also banned under national law and Cites.
Staff at both parks said the tigers used for wine-making had been killed in fights with other tigers.
Conservationists believe the wine is sold at other safari parks where buyers include visitors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.
The wine is also said to be used as a form of bribe for government officials.
The wine-making process begins with the animals being skinned and their carcasses stored in freezers until the bones can be separated. The bones are then steeped in a vat of rice wine for two or three years, sometimes with medicinal herbs added, before being bottled and sold.
Some producers market tiger bone wine as a general health tonic, while others sell it as a medicine for treating rheumatism.
Debbie Banks, the head of the agency’s tiger campaign, called for an urgent crackdown. “The Chinese authorities are clearly turning a blind eye to this illegal trade,” she said.
She urged the Beijing government to investigate other tiger parks, remind provincial authorities about the trade ban, fulfil Cites obligations to phase out tiger farms, destroy stockpiles of body parts, and invest in intelligence-led enforcement to stop the trade.
The park owners want the Chinese government to lift the domestic ban on trade in tiger body parts from “farmed” tigers. so they can produce bone wine commercially.
Ms Banks said this would be “disastrous” for endangered wild tigers. “Lifting the ban would increase demand and lead to a surge in poaching of India’s already embattled wild tiger populations,” she said.
“It would be all too easy to launder their skins, bones and parts among those from legalised tiger farms. This would be effectively declare an open season on wild tigers.”
The professional Chinese medicine community says that “culturally acceptable substitutes”, such as the common mole rat, have been used since tiger bone was removed from the official list of ingredients in 1993.
Detection is hampered by the fact that, because the carcass is soaked in the wine, there is unlikely to be enough bone in the product to be picked up by DNA tests.
Samples could, however, be taken from the carcasses steeped in the wine.
A spokesman for the UN declined to comment on the investigators’ findings but said: “The ban on trade in tiger parts was introduced to help save a highly endangered animal.
“We would expect all Cites member states to take all necessary steps to implement that ban.”