China’s trade in tiger bones

Tiger bone wine has re-emerged on the market in China, despite a ban on the trade. Zhang Kejia warns that relaxing restrictions on tiger farming will endanger the big cats even further.

Tiger bone wine (also known as “bone-restoring wine”) has recently appeared on the market in China. Does this mean that the 20-year ban on the trade in tiger bones has been lifted? This question has aroused great interest among animal protection activists in China and the rest of the world.

On August 25, China Youth Daily carried a report about tiger skeletons seen soaking in alcohol, and the resulting wine being sold, at the Xiongsen Distillery in Guangxi, southern China.

The Xiongsen Distillery is a subsidiary of Guilin’s Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park, located in Pingnan county. It produces tiger bone wine and bear bile wine. The distillery has a storage capacity of 8,000 tonnes; it has already used over 400 skeletons from farmed tigers – and plans to expand. A company spokesperson confirmed that Xiongsen’s “bone-restoring wine” is indeed made with tiger bones.

Amazingly, the company’s sale of these products has been approved by the State Forestry Administration and Industrial and Commercial Bureau. But the wildlife conservation status that the two organisations have issued is written in English, and reads “lion”, rather than “tiger”. Perhaps this was meant to avoid international repercussions. After all, not many people in China would understand the English. Clearly, the company is aware of international sensitivity to the trade in tigers.

The plight of wild tigers is currently a great cause for concern. In July, a scientific survey found that tigers’ habitats worldwide have been reduced by 40% over the last decade. China is home to only 50 wild tigers, any form of poaching or trade could quickly result in their extinction.

As early as 1981, China become a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES lists tigers as one of the world’s most endangered species, and forbids all use and trade in tigers. In 1993, China’s State Council issued a ban on trade in water buffalo horn and tiger bones, which is still in force. On September 1 this year, the State Council enacted new regulations on the import and export of endangered wild fauna and flora, reaffirming China’s consistent stance on the protection of endangered species.

But tiger-farming companies still want to profit from tigers. After two decades of enforced silence, they have started complaining that the income from selling monkeys and entrance tickets to view the tigers is inadequate to care for the animals. At the same time, however, the companies are breeding over 1,000 more tigers. They claim that the animals cannot be allowed to starve, and put pressure on the authorities to lift the ban on the tiger-bone trade.

Hengdao Hezi Big Cat Fertility Centre, in northwest China’s Heilongjiang Province, is another large-scale manufacturer of tiger products. The State Forestry Administration covers the Hengdao Hezi Fertility Centre’s annual operating expenses, and once paid 7.5 million yuan (around US$953,000) to the Xiongsen Distillery. But these subsidies cannot keep up with the speed at which tigers are bred. The Xiongsen Distillery’s original population of 60 tigers has grown to over 1,500: enough to produce over 200,000 bottles of tiger bone wine for markets across China, worth tens of millions of yuan.

According to Kristin Nowell, from the Big Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the IUCN advocates a ban on all trade in tigers and tiger products. “The IUCN will not agree with the opening of even the smallest loophole,” she said. Nowell is concerned that if the current trade in tiger bone wine is not quickly brought under control, international sanctions against China may result.

“More importantly, it will have a very negative effect on China’s image, particularly with the Olympics being held in 2008,” says Ge Rui, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s chief representative for Asia. “Reports on British TV of sales of tiger bone wine and use of musk in Guangdong affected China’s failed bid to hold the 2000 Olympics. That is a lesson that cannot be overlooked,” adds Ge.

Zhou Fang, a professor of zoology at Guangxi University, points out that protecting tigers should mean banning all trade in tiger products and preserving tiger habitats. But companies always seek the greatest possible profits, and leaving tiger protection in the hands of business was bound to lead to the situation we find ourselves in today, says Zhou.

For historical reasons, the forestry authorities oversee both the forestry industry and wildlife across China. Laws are in place to ensure the proper “protection and utilisation” of forestry resources and wildlife. Faced with the felling of natural forests and the endangerment of wild plants and animals, the government has increasingly restricted this “utilisation” of resources, emphasised the preservation of biodiversity and forbidden the use of endangered species. But the Chinese forestry authorities face a new challenge to step up their protection efforts. Many experts have suggested that the business of “protecting and supervising” and “exploiting and utilising” should be managed by separate state organs.

The forestry authorities do not only have the right to approve the use of wild plants and animals, but also own a large number of companies which manufacture products from those resources. Many of these companies have close relationships with forestry officials; cadres and family members are often a part of this network of interests. There are particularly huge profits to be made from the use of endangered species. The forestry authorities are not only responsible for protecting wild plants and animals but they are also responsible for restricting their use. Some experts believe this is akin to allowing athletes to act as their own umpires.

Tiger farmers still claim they are breeding tigers for “scientific research.” But Wang Yingxiang, a big cat expert at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, points out that Xiongsen has no pure-bred South China Tigers. All of the tigers have interbred with other subspecies and are of little use for the study of genetics or animal behavior.

Research on the behaviour of tigers bred in captivity may have some value in helping efforts to protect wild tigers, explains Xie Yan, of Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology, but there is no hope of re-introducing the animals to the wild. It would be too dangerous. There is no natural habitat for the animals to be released into; and they have lost the ability to mark out their own territories. Unable to catch their natural prey, the tigers would attack livestock – making them likely to be targeted by the humans that they no longer fear. Xie says that releasing tigers may also result in human diseases acquired in captivity being spread to wild populations, with potentially fatal results. Experts agree that claims of scientific research, protection and population recovery are all fronts for companies that want to profit from the sales of tiger bone wine.

But if the trade in tiger products is banned, what would happen to the thousand-plus farmed tigers?

Sheng Helin, a professor at East China Normal University, has a solution. Products made from tiger bones have the same effect as those made with bones from other animals. Other types of bones can be used as a substitute for tiger bones, he says. This is already accepted practice within Traditional Chinese Medicine – tiger bone has long been removed from the Chinese pharmacopoeia. Sheng suggests that a limited number of tigers should be raised by the state for viewing, scientific demonstrations and research. Companies should not be able to breed tigers for commercial gain. A failure to limit tiger breeding will be harmful to society, he says. Tigers currently owned by businesses should be used for education, research or display. Any remaining tigers can be swapped with other countries for other animals, or given away as gifts.

The authorities should act promptly and make their stance clear to the tiger farmers, emphasises professor Sheng, before the situation gets out of control.

Kejia Zhang is a senior reporter and editor with China Youth Daily