By Rachel Nuwer
Trade in big cats like tigers may be illegal around the world, but that doesn’t stop the animals and their parts from winding up on the wildlife black market. Just 3,500 or so wild tigers live today, but since 2000 the carcasses and skins of more than 5,400 Asian big cats—including tigers—have turned up at airports, restaurants or dealers’ shops. And those are just the remains that have been found and recovered by authorities.
More than 90 percent of these tiger parts are destined for China. That country values them for use in traditional Chinese medicine and as trophies and charms. In 1993, China banned the use of tiger bone in any product, but the government encourages breeding of tigers on animal farms. Around 5,000 to 6,000 tigers live behind bars in around two hundred zoos and farms in China today.
While China insists that these tigers are bred for conservation purposes, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a conservation organization, says that China is breeding tigers for other purposes. One document the organization uncovered reveals that the government has legalized domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers. Rather than quelling demand for wild skins, the conservation agency argues, this legal trade only perpetuates demand for cheaper skins from wild tigers, which fetch a prices about three times lower than skins from animals raised in captivity.
A growing number of companies have permission from the government to deal in captive-bred tiger skins, EIA reports, and each skin is issued with a certificate of authenticity from the government. But when EIA representatives asked one trader in China where the skins actually come from, the seller responded, “You don’t need to care, so long as it comes with a permit. It’s as if you were asking a child trafficker, ‘Who does the child belong to?’” More....