By Simon Denyer
GUILIN, China — To the thump of loud dance music, four tigers roll over in succession, and then raise themselves up onto their haunches. A man in a shiny blue shirt waves a metal stick at them, and they lift their front paws to beg.
The “show” takes place twice a day in a gloomy 1,000-seat auditorium — empty on a recent afternoon except for one Chinese tourist, two reporters and a security guard, its uneven floorboards, broken seats and cracked spotlights painting a picture of neglect.
Outside, hundreds of tigers pace back and forth in small, scrubby enclosures or lie listlessly in much smaller, concrete and rusted metal cages. An occasional plaintive growl rends the air.
This is the Xiongshen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in the southern Chinese city of Guilin, one of the country’s biggest tiger farms. It is part of a booming industry that is threatening to drive this magnificent animal toward extinction in the wild, conservationists say, by fueling demand for “luxury” tiger parts.
Encouraged by the tiger farming industry, China’s wealthy are rediscovering a taste for tiger bone wine — promoted as a treatment for rheumatism and impotence — as well as tiger skin rugs and stuffed animals, sought after as status symbols among an elite obsessed with conspicuous consumption.
That trend, in turn, is only making tiger poaching more lucrative across Asia — because wild tigers are still cheaper to kill and smuggle across borders than captive bred ones and often preferred by consumers. Farming has removed any stigma from tiger products and undermined global efforts to stamp out the illegal trade.
“The argument put forward by the tiger-farming lobby is that farmed tiger products will flood the market, relieving pressure on wild tigers,” said Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “This is a ridiculous notion and has turned into a disastrous experiment.”
Tigers numbers globally may have stabilized in recent years, yet they are still perilously low, and wild tigers are still dying in record numbers in India, their main habitat, with many killed by poachers to satisfy demand from China.
The next two years could be crucial, environmentalists say. With calls for change increasing both within the country and outside, China is reviewing its 25-year-old wildlife law and asking itself: Will it stand on the side of its domestic tiger-farming lobby or will it stand on the side of wild tigers and global public opinion?
Under global pressure, China banned trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, while traditional Chinese medicine practitioners also removed the products from their pharmacopeia, moves that conservationists says tamped down demand and helped stabilize the population of Siberian tigers in north Asia.
But by then, China’s tiger-farming industry was already beginning to take off. The private Xiongshen farm was established in 1993, by a former duck and snake breeder, Zhou Weisen, with investment from State Forestry Administration; its main competitor is a state-run farm in the northern province of Heilongjiang, set up in 1986.
Tigers are easy to breed in captivity, and their numbers went from a handful to a few hundred and then thousands. Today, there are thought to be between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers on about 200 farms in China, mostly born into captivity and many kept in appalling conditions — compared to less than 4,000 of the animals left in the wild. Among them are Siberian (or Amur), South China and Bengal tigers.
Ever since establishing the farms, Chinese wildlife officials have been campaigning for international approval to lift the ban on tiger bone use, arguing that the country has a right to use its “domestic natural resources” as it sees fit, and that tiger bone wine — rice wine in which bones from the big cats have been soaking — is medically effective and part of Chinese culture. They contend that the trade could be regulated effectively to reduce the demand for wild tiger parts.
But even as the rest of the world disagrees, it appears that China has simply gone ahead anyway. Multiple probes by the EIA and International Fund for Animal Welfare over the past decade, together with The Washington Post’s own investigation, show the tiger bone wine industry has boomed, with support from the SFA.
“After these farms started selling wine, and taxidermists started selling tiger pelts, it really stimulated waning demand from consumers,” said Grace Ge Gabriel of the IFAW.
Xiongshen alone says it houses more than 1,000 tigers — although fewer than 200 are available for tourists to view — and 500 bears, legally farmed to extract their bile for a different wine.
It presents itself as a tourist destination, but its bleak animal enclosures and show — where bears also twirl hula hoops around their necks and cycle unsteadily across uneven floorboards, while a goat balances nervously on a high beam with a monkey on its back — barely attract an audience.
On a recent afternoon, a Washington Post team saw just five tourists admitted over several hours, each paying about $7.
In a building on the compound, the farm’s real money-spinner is on sale — bottles of wine, in the shape of tigers, listing as a main ingredient the bones of “precious animals,” and of African lions. Even the name on the bottle — “tonic bone wine” — uses a Chinese character that rhymes with the word for tiger. Everything is designed to tell consumers this is tiger bone wine, without explicitly saying so. Even the park admission tickets boast of government approval to make wine from “the skeletons of animals which have died of natural causes” to support the tiger breeding program.
Across town, retailers are more open, boasting that the tiger-shaped bottles do indeed contain wine in which tiger bones have been steeped. A bottle left to mature for three years sells for the equivalent of $80, six years for $155, while a vintage eight-year wine retails for $290.
In 2006, an IFAW investigator gained access to the farm’s winery in the town of Pingnan, where the manager showed off 400 wine vats, boasting that each contained a tiger skeleton; one vat, he said, was reserved exclusively for consumption by a senior local official.
Zhou’s office said he declined to be interviewed for this report.
At the state-run farm in Heilongjiang, tourism is mixed with conservation as the public rationale for keeping another 1,000 captive-bred tigers. Chief engineer Liu Dan said the long-term goal was to reintroduce animals back into the wild but said it could take generations of tigers before any were ready. More....