Indian tigers, whose numbers have dwindled to 1,411, are facing poaching threat from demand in China where parts of wild big cats are preferred over those sourced from official breeding farms.
According to recent reports, there are now less than 50 wild tigers in China, which has banned trade in tigers and parts – like pelts and bones used in wines, aphrodisiacs and traditional Chinese medicines. Such parts are now harvested from captive breeding farms that currently hold over 6,000 tigers.
“Consumers in China prefer parts from wild tigers and not ones bred in farms, and this demand is proving to be a direct threat to the wild tigers in India,” says Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
The business has led to disappearance of almost all wild tigers in China as investigative reports suggest that one tiger will make more money than a farmer can earn in a decade by selling it to a breeding centre, points out the animal rights activist.
“Chinese demand, heightened by the farms has caused sharply increased poaching in India, which has only about 1,400 wild tigers left. Farms are just a cover-up; in reality tigers are raised to be butchered and consumed. Farms are actually doing trade in tiger skins and bones,” says Wright.
“The cost of raising a farmed tiger is higher, compared to poaching a tiger and smuggling its parts from India,” she adds.
Also, Chinese consumers believe that parts from wild tigers have greater medicinal potency. With as few as 20 tigers in the wild in China, India with its largest number of wild tigers is the main source of supply to whet the ever growing Chinese appetite.
“There are two farms having over 1,000 tigers each in Xiongsen and Harbin. There is evidence of illegal sale of tiger bone wine from the biggest one, Xiongsen Bearand Tiger village near Guilin in Guangxi province,” says Debbie Banks, lead campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency, an independent campaigning organisation.
“EIA has visited two smaller safari parks in China and been offered tiger bone wine, all of which is supposed to be against the law, but there appears to be no enforcement,” she says.
All of the demand for tiger parts are coming from the Chinese market, which had by mid-1980s all but consumed its own population of wild tigers and it was India that they turned to for a new source of supply, say experts.
“There are about 20 tiger farms in China, with probably about 6,000 captive tigers. It appears that the tiger farms were set up for public viewing (as open-air zoos) but in the hope that internal trade in tiger bone would be legalised by the Chinese government,” says Wright.
According to WPSI, 32 tigers were recorded to have been illegally killed by poachers in 2009. Of these 12 were poaching cases and 20 were seizures of tiger parts.
Recalling the horrible experience, Wright, who had visited tiger farms in China two years ago, says, “There were bodies of tigers piled up in a cold storage, some of which had been skinned, and others gutted. It is a sight I will never forget.”
According to a recent review by the Environmental Investigation Agency, tiger farming is extremely risky and could have severe consequences for the remaining wild tiger population. China has repeatedly said that it intends to farm tigers and resume trade in tiger bones.
The limited trade allowed within China continues to encourage and provide a platform for the illegal market in tiger bone products throughout the country, says a recent report by Animals Asia, a Hong Kong based NGO.
This leads to the further demise of the wild-tiger population and further suffering for tigers on tiger farms, said the report based on investigation conducted on Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village.
Indian tiger experts consider China the biggest threat as far as the smuggling of big cats is concerned. “The biggest threat is smuggling of big cat parts outside the country, particularly China where the parts are used for manufacturing different oriental medicines,” says tiger expert P K Sen.
In a 2008 survey that was conducted by Horizon Key, one of China’s public polling companies, 95 per cent of people said that they supported saving wild tigers and China’s ban on tiger trade.
However, 50 per cent also said that they had consumed what they thought were tiger products, and 66 per cent of the traditional medicine users said that they preferred products from wild tigers.
The sale of bones, skins and other body parts was banned in China in 1993 to protect the country’s declining tiger population.
Chinese tiger farmers argued that the ban should be lifted because it was having no discernible effect in increasing the wild tiger population. Chinese medicine practitioners have traditionally ground tiger bones into a health tonic, while the penis is used to increase virility and the whiskers are said to cure toothache.
“China has really run out of excuses. They tell us they are doing their best, but we have been warning them about this for years and there are still huge gaps in their enforcement effort. If they can put a man into space, they can do more to save the wild tiger”, says Banks of the EIA.
Sold as luxury items for home decor or clothing in Tibet and China, tiger skins fetch around $11,660 to $21,860 each, while bones, which are used for traditional medicine, sold for $1,250 per kilo last year.
Large amounts of money are involved in the trade, which is controlled by organised criminal networks, says the EIA report. Most of the big cat skins sold in China are sourced from neighbouring countries such as India, Burma and Nepal, it says.
Until the 1990s tiger bone was a primary ingredient for prescriptions — to treat pain and inflammation and to strengthen muscles, tendons and bones, says Wright.
Current estimates suggest that there may be as few as 3,100 tigers left worldwide, with around 1,411 of these in India. Already three subspecies of tiger have gone extinct in the last 100 years.