March 17, 2021 7 min read

Behind the remote, electrified fences of Chinas tiger farms, these super predators are slowly being bred to extinction.Theyre kept in cramped, concrete cells, cut off from the wild and their brethren. Theyve been cross-bred to create perfect specimens, with their own unique features, marketability and value.And having been removed from the wild, theyre often thoughtlessly destroyed if they turn out to be unsuitable for sale, or at the whim of a cruel and callous owner.

 

Every year, thousands are cruelly put out of their misery after being either abandoned or sold by unscrupulous breeders some only months old.And with more tigers nowfarmed in cages in China than left roaming free in the wild, its a sickening thought that this situation is exclusively driven by greed.In a recent report by WWF, they estimated that up to 5,000 tigers are currently being kept in cages across 19 provinces in China, mostly on small-scalebackyard farms.Many are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treatconditions such as rheumatism, back pain, arthritis and diabetes. Theyre also terribly extracted from the wild and illegally smuggled into China for the lucrative trade.

 

Ironically, in many cases the medicine is completely useless, in the same way snake oil was useless at curing the common cold.And the tiger bones are often substituted with the bones of farmed animals such as cows, dogs or goats. Some practitioners will even prescribe the use of rhinoceros horn as a tiger substitute.Demand for traditional medicine has fuelled a continuing decline in the wild tiger population, with traders selling body parts from poached tigers to illegal tourist attractions. WWF.WWF describe how one tiger carcass will sell for around $10,000 on the black-market.

 

While the actual bones and pelts are often more valuable than the meat in some places.In Vietnam, where there are an estimated 150 tigers living in the wild, bone and skin are the most preferred parts. By contrast, in China and Laos, bones are not used as much, and the meat and skin are more highly prized. WWF.How do you stop this madness?A combination of strict new laws and increased education for the people are the only ways that were going to be able to end the illegal trade in these animals and ensure the survival of this species.Its time we all started to take action and brought an end to these brutal and unnecessary tiger farms.

In a remote part of Guizhou, a woman named Yang is tending to a tiger that has taken a bullet to the foot. The tiger, Yang Li, is a star attraction at a breeding and slaughtering complex in Chinese provincial capital Guiyang, and the steady drip of saline into her bloodstream during routine check-ups is boosting her weight by almost a pound a day. Recent conservation efforts have seen tiger numbers rise for the first time in generations, but Li — along with around 5,000 other captive Asian tigers across China — is racing against the clock. The tiger’s biggest health threat is its own value. Like rhinos and elephants, Yang Li’s species is being hunted and killed at an unprecedented rate. Their bones, meat, and skin are smuggled to markets in China and across Southeast Asia, where they are considered to be a potent symbol of wealth and good fortune.

 

The poaching of endangered animals to be used in traditional medicine was banned in China in 1993, but demand continues to grow. And when poachers kill a tiger, the opportunity to profit off the dead animal is almost endless. Rick West/Getty According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and China’s State Forestry Administration, there are about 2,500 captive tigers in the country. Research conducted by the WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has shown that the tiger was far more commonly found than originally thought across the lowlands of China’s south-eastern coast, but the animal’s habitat is now shrinking. The push for space to house China’s increasingly affluent urban population and the drive to generate money from tourism are encroaching upon tiger territory. At the breeding complexes across China, a poached tiger is viewed as a loss. The tigers are prized assets, so the possibility of death is worth the risk. Tigers are an illegal commodity but there’s nothing to stop individuals, the Chinese government, or even the United Nations from investing in them. “Tigers are a cash cow,” says Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of the WCS. Killing is just one way to make money from your investment. Captive tigers must be supplied with a steady stream of live prey to keep them alive. The farms are supplied with the meat of dogs, foxes, and deer, but nothing beats the taste of wild meat, the release of fear and adrenaline that awakens a tiger’s taste buds and sends them into a feeding frenzy. People are also employed by the farms to kill tigers for their meat and skin, which must be smuggled out past checkpoints in a process called “tiger-bailing”.

 

Tiger parts are used in traditional medicine, but demand is strongest in the east, in Korea and Japan. China has tried to crack down, but the country is still thought to be the biggest source of tiger products in the world. It’s a black-market industry based on ignorance and a lack of understanding, says Rabinowitz, who is a former zoologist. “China doesn’t know that there’s a difference between a tiger and a panther,” he says. “They just know that this is a good luck symbol.” Tigers are good luck in part because of their rarity; they are considered to be powerful forces that bring the gods’ blessing and are thought to be a sign of strength and wealth. “In China there’s a saying that goes: ‘You have to take care of the rich man’s dog, because someday you will own the dog,’” Rabinowitz explains. A major challenge in tackling the poaching of endangered species in China is that the country’s closed borders make tracking the illegal wildlife trade extremely difficult.

 

The country is also increasingly hostile to conservation efforts, with some projects under surveillance and even shut down. China is currently the world’s third-largest economy and is set to become the biggest market for ivory after a nearly complete ban was imposed on African ivory trade at the start of this year. Given the state of the breeding and slaughtering industry in China, the killing of fewer tigers is being viewed by some conservationists as a sign of progress. With the help of its captive tiger population, China is looking to create a more sustainable tiger population of its own. Of the 2,500 tigers in captivity, around 200 are at a Tiger Valley park in Xixi, an hour north of Shanghai, where visitors can walk a circuit around the tigers and even play with a cub. The park started breeding its own tigers in 2010, and also organizes a breeding program in Russia’s Primorye region. But China’s captive tiger population is still a small fraction of the nation’s wild tiger population, which was estimated at around 30,000 animals between 2005 and 2006. While conservation efforts have increased the number of tigers in the wild, there is still a large divide between the number of tigers living in captivity and in the wild.

 

This could be detrimental to the tigers in China, where breeding programs rely on the expertise of people who have spent their whole lives studying the wild animals. “When you breed a tiger in captivity, you focus on creating a tiger that is a good tourist attraction, and most tourists don’t realize that a tiger that’s attracted to human beings is a tiger that will have its genes polluted, because it’s the tigers that don’t pay attention to humans that breed,” says Rabinowitz. While there is no industry that can match the profits that come from poaching endangered animals, there’s also no such thing as a well-funded conservation project for captive tigers. The Tiger Valley park relies on funding from the public, and the entrance fee is $17, which might not sound expensive. But the park’s goal is to preserve an endangered animal, and the slim chance of an individual visitor paying a fee that will help boost the number of tigers in the wild is unlikely. “We’re financially dependent on ticket sales at Tiger Valley,” admits Nicholas Cheviron, director of conservation at the Animal Planet channel and founder of Tiger Valley. “We’re also dependent on donors. We were late to the game in terms of doing a tiger conservation project.” Rick Cheviron looks like a man used to working outdoors in the sun, but his curious grin says otherwise. His working days were spent in Silicon Valley before he founded Tiger Valley, and fundraising for animal projects is a challenge for any large-scale organization, let alone ones that need to be self-sustaining. The park has to sell its tigers to the wildlife trade, a fact that its founder is more than aware of. He might be trying his best to breed tigers for conservation, but the business model he has to work with is based on short-term profitability. The primary goal of the park has to be to keep the tiger alive. “There really is no map for how this is done. It’s kind of a Pandora’s box,” Cheviron says. There are no easy answers for how captive breeding and slaughtering will work next to efforts to save tigers in the wild, but one solution will be to increase the number of tigers in captivity in China.

 

One country cannot save a species on its own, but combining forces would make the odds of getting the numbers up in the wild a little more promising. China is not using captive tiger farms to their full potential, but conservation is a slow business. Cheviron is no longer in the technology business. “This is a life-changing industry,” he says. “I have a real sense of purpose.” Long before the tigers started to appear in modern-day Chinese mythology, they were admired for their strength and power. In ancient China, tiger skins were used to make the emperor’s robe.