The Chinese government has undertaken a review of its wildlife protection law and conservation groups worry that under pressure from the nation's powerful farm lobby the government might overturn even modest protections on captive tigers.
Across China, some 6,000 tigers are held in a couple of hundred farms. Sometimes they're trotted out for a perfunctory tourist show but, by and large, they are bred for their pelts and their bones, which are steeped in rice wine and sold for up to $300 a bottle.
China's Wildlife Protection Law covers animals living in the wild, not ones held captive on breeding farms. It's a major loophole, say conservationists, and drives demand for tiger products, which leads to greater amounts of poaching.
Currently, the law permits trade in farmed tiger products, like pelts, but prohibits ones made from tiger bone. But that ban could be overturned, said Debbie Banks, lead tiger campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which tracks captive breeding in China. Tiger farms and tiger wine distilleries get government funding, she told VICE News, and tiger skins have been gifted to officials as bribes.
'Sadly tigers have become agribusiness commodities and it is because of the policies of the governments in China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.'
Overturning the ban on tiger bone products would boost poaching and laundering of illegal tigers, Banks said.
The government and China's farm lobby claim that captive breeding promotes wildlife conservation. Breeding tigers on farms, they say, eliminates the need for poaching them in the wild. But a 2014 EIA report found that farms increased demand for tiger products and had no conservation value.
The report calls attention to the growth in the number of captive tigers, which are often laundered through zoos or captured in the wild illegally. In other words: at precisely the moment when greater law enforcement is need to clamp down on tiger poaching and monitor activities on tiger farms, the Chinese government is potentially rolling back its regulations.
Tiger farms are found not only in China but have taken root across Southeast Asia.
"Sadly tigers have become agribusiness commodities and it is because of the policies of the governments in China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam," she told VICE News.
While tiger pelts are largely bought and traded as symbols of high social or economic status, tiger bone products are consumed for their supposed medicinal qualities. Some Chinese medicine practitioners say tiger bones help relieve pain and can act as an anti-inflammatory agent — a claim rejected by a growing number of their colleagues.
"There's no direct scientific evidence that tiger bone is unique in medicinal value," Jimmy Tam, who specializes in Chinese medicine at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told VICE News.
In 2010, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies called on its members to discontinue use tiger bone or other endangered-wildlife parts due to the lack of scientific evidence of their benefit. The federation's statement was lauded for sending a clear signal to practitioners of Chinese medicine.
Public information campaigns have proven successful in changing perception of the environmental impacts of consuming endangered or imperiled species.
In 2014, consumption of shark fins plummeted in China amid pressure from environmental groups, which enlisted celebrities such as basketball star Yao Ming in speaking out against the practice. Shark fin soup, like tiger bone wine, has been promoted for its supposed health benefits and as a status symbol.
The shark fin campaign reveals how the public can be brought around on their perception of environmental sustainability. But, Zhou Fei of the conservation group TRAFFIC told VICE News public awareness of the need for tiger conservation remains low and the Chinese government must step in to protect tigers.
"What is critical is that the policies promoting captive breeding and usage of endangered species need to be revised," he said. "That could send a strong message that protection of wild populations of tigers and their ecosystem values is much more than the value of their bodies and parts."
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