By Kao Chao-fen, Kuo Chung-han
Menus in restaurants at a resort complex in northwest Laos offer Chinese visitors "sauté tiger meat," bear paws and pangolins, a London-based group said in March
Customers "can openly buy endangered species products" in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos' Bokeo Province, on the border with Myanmar and Thailand, an area that has become a "lawless playground" for the trade in illegal wildlife, according to a report by Britain's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Undercover investigators with the EIA and Education for Nature Vietnam visited a tiger and bear farm inside the zone housing a total of 38 Asiatic bears and 35 tigers.
"The keeper told investigators the plan was to acquire a total of 50 [female tigers\ for breeding, with the aim of producing 500 tigers within three years and up to 1,000 tigers over the long term," read the report.
The zone is just a two-hour drive from China. Signs are in Chinese characters, the Chinese yuan is the main currency and most workers are Chinese, according to the EIA.
Many Chinese believe rare animal meats and body parts contain aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities.
The EIA report called on Laos to set up a task force to tackle the trade and seize all illegal products in the Special Economic Zone.
"China also needs to understand and accept that its legal domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers is doing nothing but driving consumer demand," said Debbie Banks of the EIA in a statement.
A Chinese delegate said, "We don't ban trade in tiger skins, but we do ban trade in tiger bones," according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Geneva in July 2014, according to a BBC report.
About 10 tigers were slaughtered in recent years and sold to customers in Guangdong Province, ranging from businessmen to government officials and school administrators, according to a report that appeared in China's Southern Daily (南方日報) in March 2014.
Tiger bone is worth an average of about 14,000 yuan (US$2,278) per kilogram, tiger meat 1,000 yuan per kilogram and wine of tiger bone 1,000 yuan per kilogram, according to the Chinese-language newspaper.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers are believed to be held in captivity in China. A report on illegal wildlife trade suggests that about 1,600 tigers, both in captivity and the wild, have been traded globally since 2000, the BBC report in July 2014 said.
Banks, the head of the EIA's Tiger Campaign, said "wealth and status are definitely drivers of demand."
China is to establish a new National Office for Tigers in an effort to coordinate tiger conservation across the country, media reported in early March.
The office will be an improvement on the currently fragmented tiger preservation efforts, said Hu Huijian (胡慧建), a researcher at the South China Institute of Endangered Animals.
Researchers are uncertain whether South China tigers still live in the wild, but there are more than 100 in captivity, added Hu.
As Siberian, Indochinese and Bengal tigers live in border areas, the office should help with international coordination, Hu said.
Tigers are the largest of all the Asian big cats and as few as 3,200 exist in the wild today, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) website.