Right now in China, thousands of tigers, more than are alive in the wild, are sitting in cages, waiting for the day that their bones are turned into wine and their skin is turned into rugs. In fact, for over two decades, the tiger "farming" industry in China has been quietly ballooning, and it's about to get a lot more legitimate.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported that a draft amendment to China's wildlife protection law would make it legal to breed captive endangered animals. Previously, such farms were unregulated and operated largely outside the law. The new policy will allow the government to track them—but will also legalize and legitimize their activities.
The law, which was publicized on January 1 and is currently under review, would apply to captive tigers who are kept as performers, as well as tigers bred to be harvested for their valuable body parts.
Besides threatening a major blow to conservation efforts, the proposed policy is a reminder that a massive market for the disembodied parts of rare wildlife continues to thrive—a market that has only grown in recent years.
Peter Knights, the CEO of the wildlife conservation organization WildAid said that the law should have been an opportunity to modernize wildlife legislation. Instead, he told Motherboard, "it follows the interest of a small group of traders in promoting captive breeding in often inhumane conditions."
"Tiger and bear farming have been disastrous for China's international reputation and this was a chance to phase-out, rather than encourage those practices," Knights added.
With the country's population of captive tigers jumping from about 20 in 1986 to some 5,000 today, the tiger part trade has been called "industrial-scale" in the past. As of 2013, there were already about 200 documented tiger farms in China, according to a report by the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency.
While tiger eyeballs, genitals, teeth and whiskers are sometimes used for their purported medicinal properties—as a treatment for problems ranging from alcoholism to epilepsy—tiger bone is where the real money's at. The pricey bones are steeped in rice wine to create a purported aphrodisiac that has been said to help ease ailments like arthritis, and is served as a status symbol at dinner parties and events.
A single bottle of the mixture, according to Munchies, can cost between USD $80 to $290, depending on how long it was aged.
Animal paws and skins are also a big draw on the international wildlife market—and tigers aren't the only large animals targeted in China. While bears are often farmed for the valuable bile that can be extracted from their organs while they are living, they are also prized for their claws, which can be dried and easily shipped. The products are used, again, for traditional medicine, though there is little evidence to support any medicinal benefits.
With the new law—which was called a "wildlife utilization law," rather than a protection law, by at least one conservationist—the animals, many of them endangered, will likely become even more valuable to the farming systems that breed them.