The scandal at Shenyang Forest Wild Animals Zoo, which was exposed by disgruntled staff last week, not only raises fears about the poor management of these facilities, but also highlights the government's lax supervision, experts claimed.
The Siberian tigers, which died of malnutrition between December and February, were among 40 at the zoo. "Another three are in critical condition and one of them is on the verge of death," said Zhang Chenglin, director of the veterinary hospital at Beijing Zoo and one of three experts who investigated the tragedy. "We are not sure if the tigers can be saved."
It is not the first time the zoo has been mired in scandal. In 2009, two tigers, allegedly also dying of starvation, were shot dead after they mauled their handlers in separate incidents.
The park in Liaoning province is currently closed to the public, according to a security guard on duty on Tuesday. Almost two thirds of its 145 staff went on strike over unpaid wages on March 10 but city officials said the dispute has been settled.
Most workers at the zoo refused to comment. However, a 51-year-old technician, who gave his surname as Qi, insisted that the animal handlers treated the tigers very well. "They just did not have enough meat to feed them," he said.
The animals were fed just the bones of one or two chickens a day for at least two years, said staff. However, according to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, big cats need 5 to 6 kg of meat with bones a day, which costs an average of 150 yuan in China.
All 11 tigers died of heart, kidney and lung failure, showed a report to the city's forestry bureau. Liu Mingyu, a professor in life sciences at Liaoning University, explained that the heart and kidney are the first organs to fail during malnutrition.
However, starvation may not the only cause of this tragedy, added Bi Yantai, director of animal management at Dalian Forest Zoo, who was with Zhang on the investigation panel. "The extreme cold weather, the poor environment of the cages they are kept in and their overall weak physical condition could also have contributed to this tragedy," he said. "Several of the surviving tigers are weak and one is in danger. We must wait to see if the treatment is effective."
Shenyang Forest Wild Animals Zoo has been struggling financially for some time. In 2006, owner Yang Zhenhua closed it, claiming the ticket price failed to cover costs. He called on residents to donate money and, within months, received 1 million yuan ($140,000) from the municipal government, which has a 15-percent share in the business.
The zoo has been supported with an annual 2 million yuan ever since and, last weekend, was given 7 million yuan to help end the pay dispute, said an official in the municipal government's publicity department.
A breeder surnamed Zhao, 33, said that before the strike he had not been paid for three months, nor had he been insured. Yang, who rarely visits the zoo, arrived to make a full apology to his staff last Sunday, said Qi.
As the investigation into conditions at the zoo continues, experts have discovered deaths among other rare species including bears, red-crowned cranes and monkeys. In just a decade, the number of animals has almost halved to 518, with the number of species falling from 61 to 49.
A draft for the Anti-cruelty to Animals Law was published on the Internet on March 17, and it will be submitted to the National People's Congress — China's top legislature — in April. The law bans animal fighting and makes it illegal to mistreat an animal raised for commercial purposes by not giving them adequate food and water.
However, the death count uncovered by investigation should be a wake-up call to the central government, say animal rights groups, who are calling for an end to the country's large-scale farming of tigers.
Although there are only 50 tigers living in the wild in China, the number at private zoos and farms has risen sharply to 6,000 — the largest in the world — over the past two decades, according to the State Forestry Administration. However, this increase is more due to the growing commercialization of tiger breeding, rather than efforts to conserve an endangered species, warned Hua Ning, China program manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Tiger farms have made lots of money from breeding lots of tigers for one purpose: to sell them and their parts," she said. "Conservation is only a cover. The presence of these farms and private zoos stimulates the illegal trade of wildlife and threatens wild species."
Animals Asia Foundation launched an undercover investigation into Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village, a breeding farm on the outskirts of Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, last September. They found that it not only had a tiger bone museum, but also sold tiger bone wine, bear bile wine and lizard wine, as well as vials of bear bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
The park was in bad physical and financial shape, according to a foundation report. Most tigers were kept in barren 8-square-meter cages, while only some of the large encloses had pools and shade.
Not all private zoos and animal farms are bad, argued Cao Liang, director of the China Wildlife Conservation Association. He said the country's best zoos are all private operations. "We've seen more private zoos in recent years and many are making big money thanks to the prosperity of the domestic tourism market," he said.
Zoos began to open up across China about a century ago and, although it reached a peak in popularity in the 1950s, there were still 212 nationwide in 2006, according to the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, a network based in Beijing. Local authorities still control most zoos but there is increasing investment from the public sector.
Cao blamed the tragedy in Shenyang on extremely poor management, not the nation's zoo system.
Just 30 km from Shenyang Forest Wild Animals Zoo in the city's Shenbei district is the Guaipo Tiger Zoo, which keeps 18 Siberian tigers, two lions and a dozen bears on 2 hectares of land in a larger public park owned by the district government.
Sun Changzhi has handled tigers at the park for more than two years. He said he feeds each animal 10 kg of raw meat every day, costing the park an average of about 100,000 yuan a year.
"Private zoos are not running well because fewer visitors are coming, but that does not mean we will starve the tigers. Our boss is not bothered about the deficits," he said.
Han Qi, a 61-year-old retired civil servant, opened Guaipo Tiger Zoo in 1998 and so far she has spent more than 3 million yuan on keeping big cats. She originally wanted to have 100 tigers but money has become too tight. "Our financial situation is becoming urgent. We have not received a penny from the local government," she said.
Tickets for the park cost 30 yuan, which goes straight to district government coffers. However, visitors must pay an extra 30 yuan to visit the tiger enclosure, which goes to Han.
"Tigers belong to our country, so the government should pay for them, or at least subsidies a zoo's income to make sure tigers are sufficiently cared for," said Han. She said her tigers, which are the main attraction, helped increase the park's ticket revenue from 2 million yuan to about 7 million yuan last year, and argued that they should get a share of the local authority's profits.
Han, who refers to her animals as "her babies", insisted that her management style is very different to Yang. Chicken bones are typical food for tigers and Han has bargained her suppliers down to 1.8 yuan per kilogram. "I make sure the tigers get the food they need," she said.
Another burden was the need to freeze dead parts, she said. As it is illegal to trade tiger parts, the zoo must store them until they can be disposed of. "But I cannot find a government department that will advise me on how to deal with the parts," said Han. "It costs me 30,000 yuan a year to freeze tiger parts."
Supervision of China's zoos comes under too many different departments to be effective, with responsibility shared among construction, forestry and tourism officials, said Liu Nonglin, program director with Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.
"Because of lack of effective supervision, we are seeing many problems, particularly with private zoos and farms," he said. "We see late payment of workers' wages, growing debts, low feeding standards and inadequate management techniques."
Forestry officials at local levels are charged with overseeing zoos but they are not in charge of their finances or resources, said Liu Xiongying, a senior information official with the State Forestry Administration.
There are more than 1,000 tigers at farms in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, and in Guilin, according to Liu Nonglin. As most of them were established in the hope of commercializing tiger products, the ban on such trade has left many businesses with too many tigers to feed and not enough money with which to do it. Some of them have even resorted to trading tiger parts, mostly tiger bone wine, on the black market, said Liu Nonglin.
The variety in zoo ownership and lack of legislation against animal abuse are letting zoo owners run wild, said Hua with International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Zoos do not have standards to stick to, or guidance on the management and medical requirements of rare animals. It makes it difficult to hold anyone responsible when they are working with a loophole in the law," he said.
Considering the number of tigers kept at Shenyang Forest Wild Animals Zoo, it is difficult to say whether Yang, the owner, has collected so many animals to exhibit them for the purposes of education or to commercialize them, said Xu Hongfa, China program for TRAFFIC, a joint conservation program by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union.
"Normally, zoos control the amount of animals, especially rare animals, according to their capability to look after them because they cost a lot to feed. But this private zoo has more tigers than most public zoos," he said.
Xu Jianzhong, manager of animal feeding and management at Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the second largest in China "We decide the number of rare animals according to our capability. Most zoos have no more than 5 tigers," he said. "We opened the park after a strict examination procedure and we are subject to constant checks by the local forestry bureau and Shanghai Wild Animal Protection Center."
Although the trade of tiger parts products has been illegal in China since 1993, tiger farms and some zoos have appealed for the government to overturn the ban.
Animal rights experts warn such a move would threaten those tigers still living in the wild.
Draft law highlights ban on cruelty to animals
By WANG JINGQIONG CHINA DAILY
Beijing — The latest draft of China's first law on "anti-cruelty to animals", which was made public on Wednesday to solicit opinion, has banned zoos from maltreating animals by not giving them adequate food and water, an additional stipulation after 13 Siberian tigers died within three months at a zoo in Northeast China.
The draft has also changed a controversial stipulation in its previous version that bans the consumption of dogs and cats, leaving the decision to regional authorities.
Chang Jiwen, a researcher at the Institute of Law, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who has been leading a panel of experts on the draft, said the ban on starving animals was included in the latest version after the recent tiger deaths aroused concern.
An investigation has been launched into the deaths of 13 Siberian tigers in the past three months at a zoo in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province.
Wu Xi, a deputy head of the zoo, earlier said two tigers were shot dead last November when they attacked a zookeeper and the other 11 died of diseases like renal and heart failure triggered by a lack of food.
Chang said experts changed the ban on eating dogs and cats because many people do not agree with a complete nationwide ban, as the situation varies by region.
The latest draft allows provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions to decide which areas in their jurisdiction can adopt the ban.
In areas where the ban is implemented, individuals will be fined up to 5,000 yuan ($730) if they violate the law. Organizations found guilty of selling the meat can be fined between 10,000 and 500,000 yuan, according to the draft.
Chang said the panel would submit the draft next week to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the top legislature.
"If legislators deem it important, the draft might take two or three years to be adopted as a law, or it might take longer, even 10 years, before it can be really implemented," Chang said.
China currently has the Wildlife Protection Law, the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law, the Livestock Husbandry Law, the Pig Slaughter Regulations, the Laboratory Animal Management Regulations and other specific laws and regulations that address animal protection and management.
"However, these laws cannot fully embody the Chinese people's compassion toward eating living creatures, and do not reflect China entering into or singing up to international conventions and declarations that require us to protect the inherent value of animals," Chang said.
Chang said the draft is not a simple copy of Western values and ideas, as "the situation in China is very different from that in the West".
"That's why we changed the name of the law, from animal protection law to law on anti-cruelty to animals. Our bottom-line is no maltreatment toward animals," he said.
The draft stipulates that "humane measures" should be adopted to butcher or kill animals, when necessary, and that no killing should take place in front of minors.
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