At least 24 tigers—seven cubs and 17 adults—have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in a series of busts this week in Vietnam, highlighting a shadowy industry that breeds, sells and kills the majestic big cats.
Prominent domestic conservation group Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) said it was working with local police in Nghe An province near the border with Laos, a major hub for the billion-dollar trade in exotic wildlife in Southeast Asia.
On Wednesday, it said the 17 adults were rescued from illegal breeders, and photos published by local news sites depicted huge tigers crammed into tiny cages. The cubs were found in a van in the area earlier this week after two Vietnamese men allegedly tried to ram a police vehicle to get away. Four pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world, were also recovered in the same period.
The cubs, which were initially in a state of shock, were fed milk, after which they began to recover and play with each other.
They will be fed imported cat milk before switching to a meat diet as they grow, in addition to receiving calcium supplements and other vitamins for them to develop healthy bones and joints, according to the group.
Tigers are functionally extinct in Vietnam due to decades of poaching and habitat destruction, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). But tiger body parts remain in demand in Vietnam, as well as in Thailand, Laos and China.
Tigers bred on farms, both legal and illegal, are killed for a variety of products, including tiger bone wine, paste, and traditional medicine despite no scientific evidence backing up claims of medicinal benefits. Claws, teeth and other parts are also used as decorative pieces.
“We’ve been working with journalists to do undercover investigations in Nghe An, which is a wildlife trade hotspot, in recent months,” said Nguyen Van Thai, SVW’s founder. “We know there are a lot of illegal farms in Nghe An, and we knew about these places in advance. It’s great that the police are willing to do this and combat the illegal trade.”
Attention is now turning to caring for the tigers, each one costing thousands of dollars a month in food and veterinary treatment. A national park has agreed to help look after the cubs for now, keeping them at its rescue center and providing medical assistance, but they will quickly outgrow the space.
Nguyen said the adults, given their size, will be temporarily moved to two local zoos until more suitable destinations can be found for them.
“We will face financial difficulties if the rescue is long-term, and there are no captive facilities for when these tigers are large,” Nguyen said, adding that the captive-bred animals could not simply be released. “The tiger is a species that needs a very fast hunting instinct to survive in the wild.”
The NGO put out a call for donations from the public to help fund the rescue and rehabilitation, and said it would work with its partners to find a suitable place to move the adult tigers, though it is unclear where. Conservation groups praised the rescues and said more was needed to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
“These confiscations clearly demonstrate the problems of ongoing farming and trade of tigers and their parts in Vietnam, and underscores the need for a phase-out of facilities breeding tigers in the country,” said Benjamin Rawson, conservation and program development director at WWF-Vietnam.
Rawson called for a moratorium on tiger breeding and additional investigative work to bring down “backyard operations.”
“This will help ensure that existing tigers do not feed the demand for illegal tiger products, and that confiscated live tigers do not continue to create a burden to already overloaded rescue centers.”
According to SVW data, there are 302 captive tigers living at legal, registered farms, zoos or rescue centers in Vietnam.
“We know illegal trading happens, so I’m really happy to see action taken against the illegal wildlife trade, even during the pandemic when it’s tricky,” Nguyen said. “But I’m also really sad that we lack facilities to take care of tigers, and I hope rescue centers and other organizations can build better capacity to care for tigers in the future.”