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Published: Tuesday April 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday April 26, 2013 MYT 12:00:25 AM

Business in big cats

Breeding cats: Zookeepers holding a white tiger, two lions and five Bengal tigers at Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China. The country’s captive-bred
tiger population has grown tremendously and there are fears that the cats are being illegally traded.

Breeding cats: Zookeepers holding a white tiger, two lions and five Bengal tigers at Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China. The country’s captive-bred tiger population has grown tremendously and there are fears that the cats are being illegally traded.

Report reveals how China’s policies are encouraging the breeding of an endangered species for commercial gains.

IN FEBRUARY, a report detailing how China’s laws and policies are fuelling growth in the domestic trade in captive-bred tiger parts hit headlines. However, the plight of the tiger was eclipsed by more pressing issues this year – dire threats facing sharks, rhinos, elephants, rosewood, ebony and freshwater turtles dominated the meeting of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in March.

As the conference came to a close however, there was at least some indication that CITES parties were taking the issues highlighted in the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, Hidden In Plain Sight: China’s Clandestine Tiger Trade, seriously. The report’s authors (whose organisation specialises in undercover exposés of crime against wildlife and the environment) blogged that certain CITES parties (China, Thailand and Indonesia) had wanted to push back the deadline of a review on efforts to combat and end the illegal trade in parts and products of captive-bred tigers, to 2016. They were voted down however, with a majority in favour of speeding up the deadline to the middle of 2014.

This is good news, considering that the report indicates that China’s domestic trade in tiger parts is putting a major damper on what has thus far been a commendable series of global efforts to wrest Panthera tigris from the brink of extinction. Up until now, international commitments and national action plans have been based on the assumption that there is a full tiger trade ban in China – historically, the world’s largest consumer of tiger parts and products. As the report indicates, however, the reality on the ground is that state policy is stimulating a legal domestic trade in captive-bred tiger skin, thereby creating a market for illegal poachers to sell to.

China’s lack of clarity on the legality of tiger bone wine, too, is spurring millions of dollars worth of investment from private enterprises looking to profit from its production. In the meantime, concerns abound that dead tigers from farms, zoos and wildlife rescue centres might be used to supply “tiger bone wineries”. In fact, the sale of tiger bone wine in tiger parks and zoos seems to be fairly common.

Since 2000, at least 5,559 Asian big cats have been intercepted in the illegal trade. Going by the International Criminal Police Organisation’s (Interpol) estimate that contraband seized is generally about 10% of what is being trafficked, this represents the death of at least 1,031 tigers, 4,189 leopards, 152 snow leopards, 26 clouded leopards, and 17 Asiatic lions.

In the last 50 years, the world has lost three subspecies of Panthera tigris. It is now listed as a CITES Appendix I species, where international trade in its parts and products is prohibited. There is thought to be just 3,200 tigers left in the wild.

Even so, the illegal trade in almost all tiger species has escalated in recent years. Intelligence plus historical information on markets and trafficking routes suggest that 90% of this trade is destined for China. China’s wild tiger population has plunged from 4,000 in the 1940s to between 40 and 50 tigers today. However, its wildlife and agricultural laws actually promote the breeding, domestication and utilisation of wildlife for “economic growth” and “conservation”. This has pushed its captive-bred tiger population up from 20 in 1986 to 5,000 or more today, spread out across 200 farms and zoos.

The wildlife conservation community, however, sees the existence of farms and stockpiles of parts as a threat to conservation. The commercial sale of certain products derived from captive-bred tigers in China is legal. For a while, many assumed that the trade ban mentioned in an order issued by China’s State Council in 1993 (prohibiting the use, manufacture, sale, import and export of medicines derived from tiger bone and rhino horn, and products claiming to contain these) applied to all tiger products. In fact, it only applied to the use of tiger bone in medicines.

In 2005, news that China was re-opening the trade in tiger parts sparked international discussions and in 2007, CITES parties decided that tigers should not be bred for their parts and derivatives, and this rule applied to both international and domestic trade. China later announced that it could not comply with the prohibition as it “interfered” with its sovereignty over domestic trade in CITES-listed species. When asked about the matter at last year’s conference on Global Tiger Recovery Programme, Chinese delegates said that use of tiger skins was allowed for scientific and education purposes, and China has a domestic trade prohibition on the use and sale of tiger bone in medicines.

Open to abuse

A pilot project to allow the marking and utilisation of wildlife products was made public in 2003, and over the years, China has made references to a domestic policy of labelling and registering skins for likely future use. In 2007, it issued a notification declaring that skins of captive-bred tigers and leopards are “of legal origin”. Since then, regulatory systems have been introduced to allow the commercial sale of skins from captive-bred tigers prepared as luxury skin rugs.

EIA investigators, however, found that there is a fine line between legal and illegally sourced skins, due to weaknesses in the permit system. The only link between the permit and the captive-bred skin it was issued for, is a photograph and that is too small to match the stripe patterns. They also reported that there are overlaps between the handling of captive-bred and wild-sourced skins. Factory owners claimed to process both types of skins in the same factory. Traders in known hot spots for illegal tiger skins confirmed that skins sourced from India and Nepal were most often destined for China.

The investigators also reported that over the course of several days, traders offered them the fresh skins of three tigers, one leopard and one snow leopard. A substantial discount was offered for skins purchased without permits. Checks by EIA indicated that captive-bred tiger skins are likely to cost 1.5 to three times higher that skins from wild tigers, making the latter a cheaper option. China has declined to provide information to the EIA on the number of farmed tigers and their locations, and stockpiles of skins and bones.

And contrary to repeated assertions by China that it is committed to the 1993 State Council order prohibiting the use of tiger bone for medicine, the EIA found that a government notification in 2005 stipulated that only operations with 500 tigers or more could apply for permission to supply hospitals with tiger bone wine. The wine is marketed to elite clients and, according to one distributor, to guesthouses and restaurants catering to high-ranking officials.

One reason why China has been able to say it is committed to the 1993 State Council order is that the finished product does not actually contain a piece of bone, as production methods involve soaking tiger bones in vats of wine to make a “stock” that is mixed with other ingredients.

The EIA report claims that tiger bones sourced from captive tigers are not being destroyed. Instead, breeders are accumulating a massive stockpile, which is being registered and labelled, potentially fuelling speculation of future trade. Exposés in the past have revealed that a number of farms, zoos and rescue centres offer tiger bone wine for sale.

The EIA says there is reason to believe that officials and businesses in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam seek to follow in China’s footsteps.

In 2009, a Laos businessmen who owns a farm with over 250 tigers, called for amendments under ASEAN, so that tigers could be treated as “other agricultural animals”. Last year, Vietnam submitted a proposal – which was turned down – for dead tigers from captive breeding facilities to be used to make specimens and traditional medicine on a pilot basis.

Growing incidences of the illegal trade in captive-bred tiger parts across South-East Asia are troubling. Thailand, Vietnam and Laos also have captive breeding tiger facilities. And circumstances of seizure incidents (involving 260 live tigers, or tiger carcasses) in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia, indicate some are likely to have originated from captive breeding farms.

The EIA points out that current pro-use policies are being championed by only a handful of Chinese officials in a few departments. It is still not too late for China’s new government to amend laws and policies to reflect the value of live, wild tigers, over body parts.

Related Story: Meet our tiger protectors

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Environment, Environment, captive tigers, china, CITES, IUCN, Environmental Investigation Agencu, Traffic, wildlife trafficking

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