Mary-Anne Toy, Guilin
June 23, 2007
AT CHINA’S biggest tiger farm, the Guilin Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Village, dozens of sleek, tigers laze in grassy enclosures surrounded by a moat.
However, it is the display of the carcass of a 16-year-old tiger in a glass box and the six giant clay jars each holding 2000 litres of rice wine, herbs and a tiger skeleton that illustrates the controversy surrounding China’s tiger parks.
The guide tells us proudly that the bones of this tiger, which died of natural causes, weigh about 26 kilograms and a kilogram of tiger bone costs 100,000 yuan ($A15,500).
Except, of course, it is illegal to trade in tiger bones or any other part of the animal known in China as “King of the Beasts” because the stripes on its forehead resemble the Chinese character for “king”.
Nonetheless, the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Village at Guilin in southern China operates in a seeming grey zone. It sells its six-year-old tiger bone wine, officially called “bone-restoring wine” for 960 yuan for a 500 millilitre tiger-shaped bottle. Screw off the tiger’s head and you smell the pungent scent of rice wine.
The guide, questioned about the legality, says it is only permitted to sell it within the village. He insists it is real tiger bone from tigers that have died from fighting or old age.
China’s efforts to eliminate the use of tiger bone and other body parts in traditional Chinese medicine, beginning in 1993 when it banned trading of all tiger products and launched a tough enforcement regime, has been lauded by the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
China has only 50 or so wild tigers left, though at Guilin there are more than 1300 tigers.
The reappearance of the Xiongsen tiger bone wine on the market last year — and persistent reports that tiger meat is available in Guilin — are warning signs to the international conservation movement that more than a decade of successful suppression of trade in tiger products might be unravelling.
A local in the know takes us around to a place at the back of the village, where we can buy the tiger bone wine “wholesale”.
A pleasant woman opens up a small office filled with cardboard boxes of bear-bile medicines. In the corner is a 2000-litre clay pot of tiger bone wine. It will cost us just 500 yuan to buy 500 millilitres, poured into a plastic bottle.
When we ask whether there are any problems taking the wine to Australia, she quickly ushers us out, saying the place will be raided by customs if she sells to foreigners.
At an upmarket local restaurant we can eat 500 grams of tiger meat, stewed or fried. With adequate notice, the meat will be fresh, rather than frozen, the waitress implies.
The explanation for the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Village’s apparent flouting of the ban is that the relevant agency, the State Forestry Administration, has granted permission for the tiger bone wine to be sold on the basis that it is actually made using lion bones — the village has 200 African lions bred in captivity.
Conservation groups have asked the Chinese Government to conduct DNA testing of the carcasses in the clay pots.
According to conservation groups such as Traffic International and the World Wildlife Fund, the Chinese Government is worried about being hit by compensation claims if it forces tiger farms to close or, if the farms go broke, being left with thousands of tigers to care for.
In an April report, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species said the tiger farms should be closed and the international community might need to help pay for rehousing large numbers of animals or accept large-scale euthanasia.
Investors, including state-owned enterprises, set up tiger farms in the late 1980s to capitalise on the demand for traditional Chinese medicines containing tiger to cure everything from rheumatoid arthritis to laziness.
When the Government banned trade in tiger parts in 1993, the parks were forced to rely on tourism to keep going. The Guilin tiger farm’s 80 yuan ticket price includes the feeding of a live young water buffalo to a tiger (staff have to complete the kill as the captive-bred tiger has poor killing skills) and a circus show featuring performing bears and tigers.
Across China there are an estimated 5000 captive-bred animals. Traffic International says about 3000 are held by 10 to 20 significant facilities, many of them privately owned parks and zoos such as Guilin’s.
The Guilin operation costs 40 million to 50 million yuan a year to operate, including 300 staff for the 1300 tigers, 400 black bears and 200 African lions, but income is no more than 15 million yuan, according to statements made by the owner, Zhou Weisen, who says he is facing bankruptcy.
WWF International spokesperson Jan Vertefeuille says reopening tiger products trade in China is likely to be the final blow to the world’s dwindling wild tiger populations.
The second largest tiger farm, the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park in north-east China is also facing bankruptcy. Its general manager Wang Li Gang organised a news conference in Beijing in March with the Guilin tiger farm to reject media reports and international non-government organisations that have accused both farms of illegally trading in tiger bones and meat.
The two tiger farms denied they had ever illegally traded in tiger parts, blaming a conspiracy by non-government organisations and the media to portray them as being only profit-motivated.