China's wild tiger population may be as small as 50
By Patrick Jackson
For every one wild tiger alive in the world today, there may be three "farmed" tigers in China.
They have been bred for their hides but also their bones, which are used to infuse some wines prized in South East Asia.
Some in the region believe that the consumption of certain parts of a tiger's carcass can give strength and virility.
China banned the trade in tiger bones and products in 1993 but that has not stopped the practice, which is currently on the agenda of an international tiger conservation conference in Thailand.
According to the World Bank, which leads the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), the trade is being spurred by privately run tiger farms in Asian countries. It has called for these farms to be shut down.
Tigers on the farms are kept in cages and are also allowed to chase cows or chickens for the amusement of the paying public.
"Our position is that tiger farms as an animal practice are cruel," said the World Bank's Keshav Varma, GTI's programme director, as he attended the conference in Hua Hin.
"They fan the potential use of tiger parts," he told the Associated Press news agency.
In order to get an idea of what goes on in these farms, which are often presented as parks for tourists, BBC World Service spoke to Judy Mills of Conservation International, who has visited some of them.
The world's entire surviving wild tiger population is somewhere between 3,600 and 3,200, conservationists believe.
In China, there are now close to 10,000 tigers on farms, says Ms Mills, while other estimates suggest the number may be around 5,000.
"These are speed-breeding factory farms," Conservation International's tiger specialist says.
According to her research, farm tigresses produce cubs at about three times or more their natural rate, bearing up to three litters a year. Cubs are often taken away from their mothers before they are properly weaned.
These cubs, she says, are usually made to suckle from other animals, such as pigs or dogs - their "wet nurse surrogates" - so that the tigresses can produce more young.
"The part [of the farm] which people rarely see is basically a winery in which the skeletons of grown tigers are cleaned and put into vats of wine," says Ms Mills.
The bones are steeped for years, she explains, and the length of the infusion determines the value of the wine.
Conservation International says it is very difficult to clarify the legal status of these farms in China.
"When I first visited a tiger farm in 1990, it was part of a fur farm raising racoon, dogs, mink and other fur-bearing animals for commercial use," says Ms Mills. "The owner of the farm was showing me the log of orders for tiger bones and skins and other parts and products from tigers.
"Then in 1993, because of international pressure, China banned its commercial trade in tiger bone and tiger bone products but, at the same time, these tiger farms were allowed to expand.
"It's something the conservation community has been trying to address with the Chinese government ever since."
Late last year, the Chinese State Forestry Administration promised to monitor tiger breeders more closely, and crack down on the illegal trade in tiger parts and products.
The fear must be, however, that with the Chinese Year of the Tiger due to fall on 14 February, demand for such items will be as strong as ever.
Read some of your comments on this story:
I visited a tiger farm outside of Harbin, China, in 2008. I had read the sale of parts was banned in the early 90s but knew when I got there it must still be ongoing - there seemed to be thousands of tigers and lions running around and in small cages. The place was a poor man's Jurassic Park for tigers and lions, and it felt like it could go wrong any minute. A rickety bus picked tourists up from the entrance, which was decorated with painted, faded wooden cartoon tiger cut outs and featured a gift shop full of tiger junk. The bus went through a series of tall, rusty metal gates to the "farm" grounds. The bus driver opened and closed the door to get the animals' attention. There appeared to be hundreds of them. Someone on the bus bought a chicken and a jeep outfitted with metal caging around the body and tires sped in front of the bus and threw the bird out to the animals. The tourists squealed as a tiger pounced on it instantly and ran off. Another area featured baby tigers-one looked on the verge of death. Its water supply was a frozen block, and it teetered around in a confused way. I found the whole thing depressing and cruel.
Juliana, MI, USA
After reading this article, it seems to me that the problem is not that tigers are farmed for hocus pocus wines and furs. The problem is that this farming is done under poor/cruel conditions. I like tigers. I have a soft spot for most cats. But in the end, if it reduces the risk of poaching (and tiger extinction) and there is a demand for these products, then this is no different from farming minks for their furs. If they can guarantee reasonably good conditions for the tigers, then I have no problem with it.
Robert, Wales, UK
The major thereat to tigers is loss of habitat, how will shutting the tiger farms change that? Also, by removing the captive supply, the pressure on wild population will increase; shutting the farms down will kill the wild tiger. What will happen to the thousands of tigers already living in the farms? That is a very real issue animal welfare. If they are shut down, farm owners no longer have financial supply/income to keep the tigers alive, who will take care of the tigers until they die? World bank? WWF?
Zuzana, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Totally inhumane. I am sorry to say this, but most native Chinese support this appalling cruelty. Words cannot express my anger and disgust. I have visited certain parts of China and had the very unfortunate chance of seeing this and other atrocities. I challenged a group of men and was literally chased away.
In 2001, I visited a tiger and bear farm in China. One time a day, a cow was released in a jungle like pen where a waiting tiger was released. There were short stratum stands for people to sit and watch from. After the tiger killed the cow, a worker would use a four-wheeler with a cage on top to scare off the big cat to collect the carcass so tourist could take their picture next to it. Ill even confess that I went to have a look. It was difficult to accept but I had to understand that it's apart of their culture, those farms and the belief of the magical uses for the animal's body parts.
K. Tran, California, USA
Conservationists need to ask themselves which is worse: tiger farms or no tigers? I'm not attempting to justify the conditions on the farms or the efficacy of tiger parts in Chinese traditional medicine but here is a group of people with a strong economic incentive to maintain a breeding population of tigers. Considering the lack of success in maintaining the population of wild tigers these farmers may offer the tigers' best hope for survival as a species. It worked for the American bison.
Scott, Port Orchard, USA
Just another trashy thinly-veiled China bashing post. 10,000 or 5,000? Make up your mind! Maybe the Panda breeding programs should learn from these "business-minded" tiger farms. After all, those guys could produce so many more tigers than their counterparts in the well-funded Panda sanctuaries. Western media is getting less and less credibility in the minds of overseas Chinese.
Jack, Vancouver, Canada
During my gap year in China (2003-04), a few friends and I went to the Harbin to see the Ice and Snow Festival, and to see the Siberian Tiger Park. They state it's a Research and Breeding Centre, but seemed little more than a tourist attraction. Once we started the tour in a 'secure' mini-bus, we entered into a tiger compound where we saw a 4x4 come screaming down, then the driver winds the window down, and threw out a pheasant. Although I got an awesome photograph of the tiger catching it in mid-air, it was only until we did the walking tour through the main centre where we saw tigers in relatively small compounds, did we think...'What the hell is this place about?' They maintain that they breed them with the intention of putting them back into the wild, but how can they proclaim that when a tiger is going to associate humans, or perhaps vehicles, with food!? Although we enjoyed the experience of seeing tigers, some of them Siberian, roaming in what were large compounds, it was saddening to see the other tigers who were not given the same sized compound. Still, all of us felt that although it was a shame to see them in such an environment, at least there are still some to be seen at all.
Its a complete disgrace! Poor creatures which are supposed to be out in the forest are being bred for their hides and bones. They deserved to be saved well before they are as dead as the dodo.
I think these farms should be allowed. Without them tigers are more likely to be poached in the wild. It keeps the species alive and may even add to the gene pool in the future or keep the species alive when it no longer exists in the wild. Conservation organisations could work along side them and take one cub from each litter to be released to the wild one day. We farm chickens, cows, sheep etc. Why should we prevent sustainable farming? So long as they are not removing any more tigers from the wild to continue their business then I see no problem with it. Just because we see tigers as beautiful exotic animals then we think it is a problem. We take calves away from their mothers after a few days, so where is the difference in them taking the cubs away from their mothers so young? So long as the animals are treated well, slaughtered efficiently with minimal stress and their bones/meat/skins used then why not?
The Chinese culture probably isn't going to change much, its been around for a long time. Modern medicine is not necessarily available or accepted in many parts of the country. I love to look at Tigers, they are regal and symbolic of great strength. I would hate to lose all but those on farms. The Chinese see them the same way, the rest of the world doesn't mean a thing to them, but if they can eat a meal of Tiger or use a decoction of some part of him in their ignorance they believe they will acquire that parts strength. I hope the conservation community is successful in its quest, but when you have a market that will pay for farmed, poached, stolen tiger artefacts, those who have little will try to fill the gap.
B Schatt, Kent, US