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Tiger Farming in China

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Guest Save the Tigers

Stories of tigers now are on the front page. While a Siberian tiger attacked and killed a man in San Francisco and wounded two others, in China a grim discovery of rare Siberian tiger cubs in a freezer and another adult tiger found beheaded and skinned at the Three Gorges Forest and Wildlife Park made the news. What’s not on the front page, however, is how tiger farming has for a while now been a big business in China.


China has only about 50 Siberian wild tigers left in the wild near the Russian border, while around 5,000 tigers are kept in tiger farms in different parts of the country. Of them around 2,000 are in two big parks – one in Harbin, north of China, and other in Guilin, in the southwest.


As an economist from India working on issues of natural resource management, I had an opportunity to visit both of these parks and also to interact with a number of people involved in this business last year.


I was perplexed and shocked. While visiting the tiger farm in Guilin, the other visitors and I were given a guided tour by the owner who had put his hand on many businesses including large scale farming, air cargo, construction, and so on. In the park, around 1,000 tigers of different age, sex, and subspecies were housed more like cattle. The only difference was that only one or two animals are kept in one cell, unlike in a cattle shed. The animals are fed with fixed weights of chicken, beef, vitamins, etc. There are veterinary experts and the DNA code of each animal is recorded. It is to control the illegal sale of animal parts to use in Traditional Chinese Medicine - TCM - as the use of tiger parts was banned in 1993. It was equally shocking to see the cold storage where the bodies of dead tigers are kept. According to the owner, the law does not allow the destruction of dead animals. However, the hope that the ban may be lifted at some time in the future may be encouraging the storage of dead bodies.


The park attracts a regular stream of visitors to see the enclosure of tigers as in a zoo. The owner says that the income through visitor fees is adequate to meet only half of the operating cost of the farm. An animal may need around $5,000 dollars for its upkeep during a reasonable life span of say 10 to 12 years. These farms, established in the 80s long before the ban, were deriving a major part of their income from the sale of tiger parts. After the ban, the prices quoted in the illegal market are mind-boggling: a dead tiger may fetch up to one hundred thousand dollars! No wonder the owner of this farm is in the forefront demanding the lifting of the ban on using tiger parts in China.


The scene in the government-owned tiger farm in Harbin in North China is not very different, though the upkeep of animals there is relatively better. Fewer animals are kept in larger enclosures, and the visitors can enjoy a safari park experience. Moreover it may get more government subsidies. The farm is also used for research purposes in collaboration with the North Eastern Forest University. However, the managers highlight the difficulty in keeping the animals solely with visitor fees and government grants. They argue vehemently for lifting the ban so that at least the bodies of the animals naturally dying can be sold to get more income. The owners of both farms propose that if sales of tiger parts through legal channels are allowed, they will commit a part of the income for further tightening the law enforcement in China to control illegal trade of tiger parts (acquired through poaching from other countries).


Officials told me that the Government of China has been thinking about the implications of lifting the ban. It is under strong pressure from the tiger farms, and the general public, who believe that the use of tiger bones is beneficial. But some sections of international environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts strongly oppose the lifting of the ban. In any case, the Chinese government will not take any decisive step before the conclusion of Beijing Olympics, to avoid any bad publicity. They encourage consultations on the implication of the ban, and my visit to China was also part of this effort. There are strong arguments for and against lifting the ban.


Opponents question the scientific basis of the use of tiger bones to cure diseases. Traditional medical systems including Ayurveda (Indian medicine) or even homeopathy cannot be validated within the framework of modern science. This, however, does not prevent people from using these medicines. The major concern of those who oppose lifting the ban is that it would encourage poaching of wild tigers in countries like India. They cite that it is cheaper to import a poached tiger to China rather than raising a tiger in a farm.


Even some environmentalists who oppose lifting the ban recognize that China of late has put in place a reasonably effective mechanism to control the import of poached tigers. Such a mechanism would continue to function even if the ban is lifted. Chinese authorities cite the use of DNA technologies to identify whether a tiger part comes from an animal kept in a registered farm or not, so that the illegally bought tiger parts can be identified and confiscated. The labeling and inspection currently being used for the sale of ivory and other wildlife products in China is also cited to indicate the possibility of facilitating legal trade, without encouraging poaching.


Consumers have an interest in buying products from a legal market since there is no assurance that what they get in an illegal market is a genuine product. Currently, a large share of the confiscated body parts supposedly from tigers turn out, after testing, to be bones of other animals including dogs.

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