With as few as 20 in the wild in China, the country’s tigers are a few gun blasts away from extinction, and in India poachers are making quick work of the tiger population, the world’s largest. The number there, around 1,400, is about half that of a decade ago and a fraction of the 100,000 that roamed the subcontinent in the early 20th century.
Shrinking habitat remains a daunting challenge, but conservationists say the biggest threat to Asia’s largest predator is the Chinese appetite for tiger parts. Despite a government ban on the trade since 1993, there is a robust market for tiger bones, traditionally prized for their healing and aphrodisiac qualities, and tiger skins, which have become cherished trophies among China’s nouveau riche.
With pelts selling for $20,000 and a single paw worth as much as $1,000, the value of a dead tiger has never been higher, say those who investigate the trade. Last month the Indian government announced a surge in killings of tigers by poachers, with 88 found dead in 2009, double the previous year. Because figures are based on carcasses found on reserves or tiger parts seized at border crossings, conservationists say the true number is far higher.
“All of the demand for tiger parts is coming from China,” said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Unless the Chinese change their attitude, the tiger has no future on this earth.”
Although conservationists say India must do a better job of policing its 37 tiger reserves, they insist that the Chinese government has not done all it can to quell the domestic market for illicit tiger parts. Anti-trafficking efforts are haphazard, experts say; China bans the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine but overlooks the sale of alcohol-based health tonics steeped in tiger bone.
It is a gray area that has been exploited by Chinese tiger farms, which raise thousands of animals with assembly-line efficiency.
If there is any mystery about what happens to the big cats at Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in Guilin, it is partly explained in the gift shop, where fuzz-coated bottles in the shape of a tiger are filled with “bone strengthening” wine. The liquor, which costs $132 for a six-year-old brew, is sold openly across the surrounding Guangxi region and beyond.
“This stuff works wonders,” said Zhang Hanchu, the owner of a spirits shop in Guilin. A daily shot glass of the rice-based alcohol, he said, can reduce joint stiffness, treat rheumatism and increase sexual vigor. With the Year of the Tiger nearing, demand has been soaring, he said.
Opened in 1993 with financing from the State Forestry Administration, Xiongsen is China’s largest tiger-breeding operation. Some of its 1,500 tigers roam treeless, fenced-in areas, while many others are packed in small cages where they pace agitatedly.
The park is a fairly dispiriting place. In addition to the tigers, there are hundreds of capuchin monkeys rattling in cages, awaiting their fate as fodder for medicinal elixirs or medical experiments. There are also about 300 Asiatic brown bears which are tapped for their bile, the main ingredient of a lucrative supplement said to improve eyesight.
Those who pay the park’s $12 entry fee are treated to an extravaganza of tigers jumping through rings of fire or balancing on balls; if the crowds are large enough, workers will place a cow and a tiger in an enclosure with predictably gruesome results.
Until a spate of negative press two years ago, Xiongsen proudly sold tiger steaks at its restaurant as “big king meat.” These days, the park takes a more low-key approach. The word “tiger” no longer appears on the wine packaging — “rare animal bones” is used instead — although those who sell the wine say the key ingredient remains tiger bone.
On a recent visit, a regular stream of cars, some with government license plates, pulled up to a building at the center of the park and drove away with their trunks full of Xiongsen’s wine tonic. A large sign in the building’s interior declares “Protecting Wild Animals is the Bounden Duty of Every Citizen.”
A woman who answered the phone at Xiongsen’s winery said the owner, Zhou Weisen, was not available to comment, but she insisted that tigers were not an ingredient in the 200,000 bottles a liquor produced each year.
In addition to overlooking the sale of tiger wine, the Chinese government has fueled the market in tiger parts by letting such farms exist, critics say. Although the State Forestry Administration reiterated its support for the ban on the trade of tigers last December, it reconsiders the restrictions each year, giving hope to the politically powerful owners of China’s 20 tiger farms.
If the ban were lifted, critics say, trade in farm-bred tigers would simply provide cover for poached tigers, which are far cheaper to harvest and bring in far higher prices because most Chinese believe the healing properties of wild tigers are greater than those raised in cages.
An employee at the forestry administration said the entire staff was away on a retreat and could not be reached.
Debbie Banks, who runs the tiger campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, said China’s stated resolve to help end the international trade in tigers was diluted by its ambivalent stand on domestic sales. “The government is stimulating and perpetuating demand, which is the real problem we’re facing,” she said.
Despite the grim news, conservationists say the coming year also presents an opportunity to raise awareness about the problem. All the hoopla surrounding the Year of the Tiger has captured the attention of many nations, especially China, whose government is sensitive to criticisms that it is encouraging the tiger’s extinction. In September, Russia and the World Bank will host a summit meeting on tigers that conservationists hope will yield a solid plan to restore plummeting tiger populations.
James Compton, Asia program director for TRAFFIC, which monitors the global wildlife trade, thinks the most important step would be for China and other nations to elevate the interdiction of tiger parts to that of illicit drugs. “It’s not rocket science to knock out the big traders,” he said, adding that bodies like Interpol and the World Customs Organization should take on the fight.
Guarded optimism aside, Mr. Compton cannot help but recall the last time the Year of the Tiger came around, in 1998. There was similar talk then of using the occasion to marshal the international community. He also has a vivid memory of the poster produced for the occasion. Its pitch: “Save the Last 5,000 Tigers.”
Xiyun Yang contributed reporting.
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