Why China’s tigers need support

China prohibited the sale of tiger products in 1993, pulling the big cat back from possible extinction in the wild. But with the breeders now going out of business, Feng Yongfeng asks how government can support the tigers.

Delegations from the 171 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of (CITES) recently met in The Hague. At the meeting, which ended on Friday, the Chinese government promised to continue strictly enforcing its ban on the trade in tiger bones.

In fact, the continued existence of tigers in the wild today is testament to the Chinese government’s decisive action, said professor Xu Hongfa, coordinator of TRAFFIC’s China programme, who attended the meeting. “Any relaxing of the Chinese ban on the tiger trade could push this endangered species to the brink of extinction.”

Historically, the greatest demand for tiger products has come from China, where tiger bones are prized as a cure for rheumatism. But it is medically proven that tiger bones do not have any unique medicinal properties, and can be replaced with other varieties of bone. The Chinese pharmacopoeia erased tiger bones from its pages long ago, proving that the government is correct in enforcing its ban.

But there are two sides to every story, and if the blanket ban on the trade is not complemented by other measures, obstacles to protecting the tigers may arise.

Tiger breeders in trouble

It is hard to imagine, but Xionghu Mountain Park in Guilin, in south China’s Guangxi province, is home to 1,300 tigers. You can find the Siberian tiger, South China tiger, Bengal tiger and even the rare white tiger at the park. The park’s director, Zhou Weisen, has raised so many tigers he must hold the world record. But he is suffering enormously as a result. Why? Because he doesn’t know what to do with them all.

To raise his big cats, Zhou managed to attract 360 million yuan (US$47 million) in investment to the park. But now he is in debt to the tune of 500 million yuan (US$65.5 million). He has even considered abandoning the park; he cannot even afford the beef he needs to feed the tigers.

China’s 1988 Wild Animal Protection Law encouraged individuals and organisations to rear protected wild animals, and it was at this point Zhou decided to raise 12 tigers from zoos all over China. Supported by his family, he went on to purchase another 70 tigers, and brought in tiger-rearing experts from a number of zoos. He had hoped to earn money for the park’s upkeep by marketing tiger products. But when it was discovered in 1993 that there were less than 100 of the big cats living in the wild, the government released its notice on the ban of rhinoceros horn and tiger bones. This prohibited “all trading activities related to tiger bones,” which included the medicinal use of the animal’s bones. Zhou’s hopes of producing tiger bone wine were dashed.

In 2000, the number of tigers in the park had reached 900. But the cost of keeping all the tigers could not be covered by selling entrance tickets to tourists. Zhou started sterilising some of the animals in 1998, to relieve the financial pressure of their continued breeding. Zhou applied to the Guangxi Forestry Bureau the same year, asking permission to release 10 South China tigers on Mao’er Hill in Guilin. The bureau refused, for fear the animals might attack local people. And when Zhou started selling a medicinal “bone-strengthening wine”, people suspected it may have been made from tiger bones.

Zhou believes that there are only two possible solutions to his problem: the state can provide subsidies and allow him to keep the tigers, or it can lift the ban on tiger products, which would mean the park could earn its own money.

Releasing tigers into the wild

The Siberian Tiger Forest Park, in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, has raised over 750 tigers, the most anywhere in the world. “Twenty years ago we only had 10 or 20 tigers, but after a long effort, we made huge progress in our breeding programme, with over 100 tigers being born each year,” says the park’s general manager, Wang Ligang. “We started experimenting with artificial insemination in January, to prevent closely related animals mating with each other. Technological advances mean breeding can take place faster, and at current rates, there might be 100,000 tigers in China within 10 years. It’s good news that the numbers are increasing, but we have to think about getting tigers back into the wild, because that’s where they belong. We just keep asking ourselves: ‘when can we release them?’”

“We’ve also got the same problem with debts as Zhou Weisen. Almost 300 of our workers are working unpaid, out of the kindness of their hearts. Our best year financially was 2006, but even then we made a slight loss. A big problem is the lack of public donations: from when we opened the park until now, we only received 50,000 yuan (US$6,550) in total public donations. We run tiger adoption schemes, where a child can adopt a tiger for 500 yuan (US$66), an adult for 2,000 yuan (US$262) and a company for 10,000 yuan (US$1311), but this has not been very popular either. We already have 200 tiger corpses in cold storage.”

The once-mighty “king of the mountains” is now almost homeless. Wang hopes that the government will provide subsidies to enable him and his team to continue to rear the tigers, and one day release them into the wild.

Professor Lü Zhi, from the Peking University Institute of Life Sciences, says there are four different subspecies of tiger in China: the Siberian tiger, the South China tiger, the Indochinese tiger and the Bengal tiger – but the country’s total tiger population in the wild is less than 50. Saving the tiger is imperative, and there is no time to lose.

In the early morning of May 13, the first ever sighting of a living Indochinese tiger occurred in southwest China’s Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve. It is a ray of hope for the protection of tigers in the wild, but time is running out and action needs to be taken now. Investment must be increased, in anti-poaching measures, anti-tiger trade measures and the protection of tigers’ natural habitats. But government should also help increase the wild tiger population by subsidising those who started breeding tigers before the changes in policy on tiger products. They should also assist the breeders to release tigers into their natural habitat, once they have been trained to survive in the wild.

The first ever picture of a living Indochinese tiger, photographed by Chinese researchers from the Beijing Normal University Ecological Research Centre and Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve.

Yongfeng Feng is a Beijing-based reporter

Homepage photo by Kevsunblush