Wealth buys power. At times, that power can be strong enough to allow criminals to evade the law, but sometimes, even the mighty fall, and hard. Such was the case late last month when a flush Chinese businessman, known only as "Mr. Xu," was finally caught by Chinese authorities after leading three "tiger slaughter tours," during which he charged groups of rich individuals for the privilege of participating in the killing of endangered wild tigers, then dining on their flesh and drinking wine infused with their blood. In an age of mobile handheld devices, it's even harder for powerful individuals to escape scrutiny, and after one of Xu's tour attendees filmed the whole sordid scene on his phone, Xu was apprehended and now faces 13 years of jail time and a fine of 1.55 million yuan, or about $250,000 USD.
The Independent reports that Xu illegally purchased the tigers in China's southern region of Guangdong sometime in 2013, then transported them west to his home region of Guangxi. On three separate occasions last year, he charged about 15 clients "huge amounts of money" to participate in the ritualistic killing of the animals. Typically, Xu grilled the tiger meat, and he also preserved the bones and penises of the cats—both widely considered in China to be effective as medicines and aphrodisiacs, respectively—and drained the tigers' blood, which he used to infuse alcohol and wine. As the group ate the tiger meat, Xu told his customers to claim it was beef, horse, or "big cat" meat if anyone asked. Xu was sentenced in April after the phone footage was seized. He appealed, and in the last week of December that appeal was rejected and Xu received his sentence. His clients have also been given jail sentences of five and a half to six years.
The use of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine has persisted strongly in the country, to extremely damaging effect on wild animal populations there. For thousands of years, ingredients such as rhinoceros horn (used for lowering blood pressure), freshwater alligator meat (cancer prevention), musk deer glands (circulatory problems), and gallbladder bile from several species of bears (purported to treat everything from burns to asthma to cancer) have been used to treat patients. The wild populations of these animals—not just in China, but all around Asia—have plummeted, and few have been harder-hit than the South China tiger, whose supposed medicinal qualities are both incredibly varied. The cat's bile is used to treat convulsions; its blood weakness; its bones rheumatism and arthritis; it claws insomnia; its eyes epilepsy and malaria; and so on. Even tiger feces are put to use as a cure for boils and hemorrhoids. As a result of intense demand for tiger, and high levels of poaching, the South China tiger is considered "functionally extinct" and has not been sighted in the wild in China for over 25 years (Xu may have gotten his supply from the incredibly narrow range, in sub-tropical southeast China, where the few living individuals are thought to remain).
But over and above the tiger's supposed medicinal properties, what's going on in China is really a question of status. A tiger represents ideas of strength, virility, and rarity, and a person's ability to obtain such an animal can confer, in the mind of someone like Xu, those same ideals on the person killing, eating, or displaying the tiger. The expense of obtaining the tiger is also a surefire way to display social status: it hasn't been determined how much Xu paid for his tigers, but the average price of their meat and bones is traceable. Last year, in Guangdong, more than ten tigers were killed as "visual feasts" to entertain Chinese officials and rich businessmen, The Guardian reported. The tigers' bones—often given as high-stature gifts—sold for an average of $2,260 USD per kilogram while the meat brought in about $161 per kilo.
Xu's downfall is surprising because although the consumption of endangered animals was made illegal in China last April, the country's efforts to enforce the law have generally been dismal. The country's primary tactic in combating illegal poaching has been to allow the flourishing of captive animal "farms," where animals such as tigers and pangolins—an endangered anteater that is one of the most heavily trafficked animals in the world—are bred and then can legally be killed to harvest their pelts, meats, bones, and organs. But though Chinese officials claim that such farms reduce the poaching pressure on wild populations—since the desired parts are legally available—conservationists say the system actually helps traffickers and restaurants pass off their wares as farmed when they are in fact poached, since once the animal is killed and dressed it becomes next to impossible to determine whether it was farm-raised or not.
Unfortunately, the situation doesn't seem likely to improve any time soon: according to a report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable criminal activity in the world, bested only by drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. With dollar signs like those at stake, there's not much hope for the future of Chinese tigers in the wild.