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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.

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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 recorded sighting of an Indochinese tiger 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

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





I find the notion of relaxing the ban somewhat disingenuous - will it really be tightened again in future? - burning bright, London.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Are there really tigers in the wild?

Are there really tigers in the wild in China? Superb! Tigers, are the most beautiful animals to me. The tiger subsidy should be implemented. And how about us donating to the tigers?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


一位名叫Li Quan的中国女士已在开展一个伟大的工程—把华南虎重新带回野生环境。她带着幼虎从中国一路飞到南非,在那里小老虎们将要学习如何捕猎,如何适应野外生活,直到再被带回国。http://www.savechinastigers.net/home.php. 由于小老虎们被带离出它们原本栖息地,这也遭来了些许批评。但如果这成功了,该是件很有趣的事。

Saving China's tigers

A Chinese woman named Li Quan has embarked on an ambitious project to reintroduce the south china tiger back into the wild. She has flown captive tiger cubs from China all the way to South Africa where they will learn to hunt and cope in the wild before being eventually returned to China. http://www.savechinastigers.net/home.php. The project has received some criticism given that the animals have been taken far from their native habitat. It will be interesting to see if it is successful.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Asian Tiger or African Tiger?

Why should the Asian tigers be taken far away from their previous and future living environment and be reintroduced back into he wild in South Africa? Whether the different features of the climate and geography will cause any inadaptation and unsuccess? Why moving the tigers by air back and forth instead of introducing the facilities and expertise into China and rewilding them on their native habitat? Which solutions more efficient and economical? If it is more economical to rewild the tigers in China, why the non-profit charity group chose the more expensive way? The obstruction and motivation behind their choice is a very interesting issue. No matter where to reintroduce the tigers back into the wild, if this way can increase the number of Chinese wild tigers’ species, it will be an inspiring thing beyond an interesting thing.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


有始有终, 对保护老虎的整个计划似乎都没有获仔细的考虑。为什么政策制定者没有考虑到在将来,通过繁育来增加老虎的数量, 同时配合各方面的计划和努力将老虎放归山林呢?在于目前所面对问题,如果政府决定解开贩卖虎制品的禁令,这意味着根本都没有诚意对禁止虎制品的买卖而作出努力,这只是来解脱国际动物保护组织所给予的压力。

Was the motive really sincere from the start?

It seems that the whole tiger protection scheme had not been thought out thoroughly from the start. Why didn't policy makers think about years down the road there would be an increased in tiger population from breeders, and that much planning and efforts are needed to bring the tigers back to the wild? Now in the face of the problem they have at hand, if the government were to decide to lift the band on tiger products, it would mean that the original band in the selling of Tiger products was not a sincere effort to protect the tigers but was simply done to relief pressure from international animal protection groups.