May 10, 2017 07:22 PM

Debate Rages Over China’s Captive Tigers

China’s Siberian tigers once roamed from the boreal forests in the north to the Yellow River in the south.

But today, there are a mere 30 in the wild in China, confined to the border near North Korea and Russia, pushed to the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and the sale of their prized parts, which in Chinese medicine is said to heal diseases.

Yet over 5,000 of these cats — the largest in the world — live in captivity in about 200 Chinese safari parks and zoos, part of a breeding program that has been beset by controversy.

In 2010, 11 Siberian tigers died of starvation at the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo, a privately run park in Liaoning province. In July, one woman was killed by a tiger and another injured after the two stepped out of their car during a drive through Badaling Safari World near Beijing.

Today, an artist who built his career painting and sculpting tigers wants to use his influence to shut down the enclosures.

Yunnan-born painter and sculptor Yuan Xikun, who is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the founder of the Beijing Jin Tai Art Museum, burst onto the Chinese art scene decades ago with his expressive depictions of tigers. He even produced an enormous tiger sculpture for the Beijing Zoo.

But lately Yuan has found himself painting more horses than big cats. Yuan adores wild tigers, he told Caixin, but today almost all of China’s tigers live on large-scale farms and safari-style parks, with fewer than 30 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild. The South China tiger, another subspecies native to China, has been declared functionally extinct.

“The thought of them makes my heart ache,” Yuan told Caixin. “They have no spirit and live like pigs.”

Yuan hopes to use his status as a CPPCC member to improve the plight of China’s captive tigers. At the annual plenary session of the CPPCC this March, Yuan argued that tiger parks obstruct tiger conservation efforts and damage China’s international image.

He submitted a proposal to shut down commercial tiger farms, and to destroy the large and valuable stockpiles of tiger carcasses on farms. But Yuan and those who agree with him face an uphill battle against policymakers reluctant to take absolute measures, as well as the tiger breeders who are fighting for their own survival.


Official ambivalence

In the 1980s, China’s population of wild Siberian tigers was fewer than 30, concentrated in the areas of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces near the border between China and what was then the Soviet Union.

Alarmed by this dwindling population, China began a breeding program aimed officially at reintroducing captive-bred Siberian tigers into their historic range along the Russian-Chinese border in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.

There are now over 200 organizations in China raising tigers with licenses from the country’s State Forestry Administration, including some private businesses, and the number of captive tigers today is estimated to be 5,000 to 6,000.

Two farms — the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park and Xiongmen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village in Guilin, Guangxi region — house over 3,000 tigers combined, more than half the country’s captive population. Additionally, almost all of China’s approximately 200 zoos have tiger exhibits. Circuses account for about 300 tigers.

In 1993, China’s State Council banned all trade of rhinoceros horn and tiger bone, and the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s official drug compendium, removed tiger bone from its list of traditional Chinese medicines.

From time to time, however, the debate on the tiger-parts trade reopens. In 2005, the Jiangsu Province Forestry Bureau told local media that the State Forestry Administration was considering a pilot program that would allow limited commercial trade in tiger skin, bones and meat.

Traditional and folk medicine practitioners have long believed that tiger parts can cure ailments like epilepsy and tuberculosis.

In July, the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress approved new amendments to the Law on the Protection of Wild Animals. The amendments ban the production and sale of products containing parts of nationally protected animals.

But the amended law still allows for trade in wildlife products for scientific research and captive breeding, and policymakers have been unwilling to completely rule out all forms of trade in tiger parts.

At the news conference after the amendments were passed, NPC Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee Director Zhai Yong said, “Raising tigers for food is something we strongly oppose. But as for whether we can use bones from already-dead tigers for medicine — this is an issue the committee still needs to debate.”

This legal imprecision has encouraged breeding facilities to amass stockpiles of frozen tiger carcasses in the hope that the tiger-bone trade could one day become legal again.

In a 2010 interview with the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekly, the Harbin park’s general manager, Wang Ligang, said that the park had “a fortune of more than 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) stored in its freezers.”

Skin and bones

Some tiger breeders say that ironically, the 1993 ban on trading tiger bone hurts rather than helps the big cats because it cuts off funding for captive breeding projects.

At the Shenyang Wild Animal Forest Zoo, where 11 Siberian tigers died over the course of four months in 2010, necropsy reports showed that all 11 animals had suffered from “extreme weight loss” and “long periods of malnutrition.”

The zoo had been taking money from employees’ salaries to feed the tigers, and the facility’s 30-odd tigers needed at least 9,000 yuan worth of meat every day, a staffer at the time told The Guardian.

Later, a park warden at Shenyang Forest Zoo revealed that in the winter of 2009-10, each tiger was fed daily only two or three chickens, less than 3 pounds of meat total. The average adult tiger needs at least 15 pounds of meat a day to maintain a healthy weight.

Other zoos across the country have had to ask the government for funding or relied on donations raised through social media.

Tigers don’t eat carrion or frozen meat, an employee at the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park told Caixin. A park housing a few hundred tigers could spend tens of thousands of yuan every day on food for the big cats, the employee said.

But artist Yuan, echoed by a number of international and domestic agencies, said the farms have not completely ended their participation in the tiger-part trade.

In 2013, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), published a report saying that permits for tiger breeding and the legal sale of tiger parts for scientific or educational purposes create loopholes that allow companies to get away with selling tiger-skin rugs and tiger-bone wine.

Caixin was shown meeting minutes that had recorded complaints by China’s Forest Police about practices at the country’s two largest tiger parks.


The parks sell bone wine, a traditional tonic containing animal bones, with permits from the State Forestry Administration, the minutes said. The labels on the wine bottles omitted any mention of tiger parts.

But the Forest Police minutes said that employees at the parks verbally implied to customers that the liquid on sale was tiger-bone wine, “giving the public the impression that the country allows the sale of tiger-bone wine.”

Symbolic animal

Some experts say that attempts to release captive tigers into the wild are misguided and inherently flawed.

Zhou Haixiang, a member of China’s national committee of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program, believes China’s plan to release captive tigers into the wild has been thwarted by inbreeding, as well as the fact that captive-bred tigers tend to approach humans when in the wild, threatening the safety of people in nearby communities.

“Human-raised tigers have contact with humans from the moment they’re born, and don’t fear humans,” Zhou told Caixin. “Wild tigers hide from humans.”

Still, Zhang Minghai, professor at the College of Wildlife Resources, Northeastern Forestry University of China, said that “release of captive-bred tigers must be done, or natural recovery will be too slow.”

Spending money to release captive tigers into the wild won’t be as effective as using the same money to protect the wild tigers that already exist, Xie Yan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, told Caixin. “The biggest problem for China’s wild tigers is the fragmentation of their habitat,” she said, calling it a problem that can’t be fixed by reintroduction programs.

No one is sure what the future holds for China’s tigers, but it’s clear that the fate of more than one species hangs in the balance. A policy shift in either direction will send out strong signals about China’s attitude toward wildlife conservation.

“The tiger is a symbol,” UNESCO’s Zhou said. “We hope to use this symbolic animal to convince local governments, the public, and NGOs to work together to help ecosystems recover.”

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