China gets it up on Tiger Power

Despite the fact that the use of Viagra and Cialis, the two biggest-selling drugs for male erectile dysfunction, is skyrocketing among Asia’s males, many still believe the way to turbo charge their virility is by eating the parts of powerful animals. That is why it is still possible to find, in some of Asia’s finest Cantonese restaurants, a soup discreetly called “tiger prick.”

Consequently, despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that eating any part of the tiger has medicinal value, China is seeking to stimulate a new multimillion dollar industry by quietly pushing to legalize international trade in tiger parts, which are being used for everything from treating insomnia (tiger claws) to leprosy and rheumatism (tiger fat), virility (tiger penis), malaria (tiger eyes), ulcers, rheumatism and typhus (powdered bone). And Viagra is cheaper. A bowl of that tiger prick soup in Taipei will cost US$320. Powdered tiger bone is US$1,450 per pound, according to a 2004 study by Tamara Olton for the National Science Foundation and Michigan State University in the US.

While the Chinese plan would trigger a captive-breeding explosion, critics say it would effectively reduce these long-revered creatures to yet another farmed product to satisfy misguided human appetites. The tigers’ dirty little secret is that they breed like the cats they are. Zoos across the world routinely either sterilize their big cats or otherwise keep them from breeding.

Already, according to Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute in New Delhi, as many as 4,000 tigers are already being farmed in China. Chinese officials estimate that 100,000 tigers could be farmed within a decade. By comparison, there are fewer than 5,000 tigers in the wild and numbers are fast diminishing.

In an email interview, Mitra, who has visited tiger and bear farms in China as a guest of the Chinese government, says their salvation in the wild would be a flood of farmed beasts to reduce prices now paid to poachers and middle-men and effectively under-price the illegal trade. [Currently, a single tiger is worth as much as US$40,000, a powerful incentive for poachers. Once parted out and packaged for sale, a single animal can fetch five times as much, leaving plenty of room for middlemen.]

Animal rights advocates and conservationists have been traumatized for decades over the grisly treatment of bears in China. But, Mitra says, the facilities he saw appeared humane.

“We visited two breeding facilities near the cities of Harbin in the north, and Guilin in the south,” Mitra said. “At Harbin we were told that they had 750 tigers at two nearby locations. We visited one and I was quite impressed with the way the animals were kept. Many were in large enclosures, others were in very large cages. And the hospital and nursery were quite impressive.”

In Guilin in Southern China, he says, he saw almost 1,000 tigers and 400 bears kept in relatively smaller enclosures and cages “although there is nothing in their condition that I would object to. Most seem to be in a much better situation than they are in zoos, for instance, in India.

Although commerce and conservation have been considered antagonistic to each other for the last three decades, he said, “I think commerce can be a powerful tool which could be effectively harnessed to help the cause of conservation as well.” Some portion of taxed earnings could go to buttress under-financed anti-poaching efforts, he argues

Opponents say this is an illusion, in part because raising tigers costs many thousands of dollars, while poaching, by comparison, is cheap. Legalizing the trade would also stimulate tremendous new demand by making it legitimate and undermine law enforcement by making the illegal trade indistinguishable from the controlled trade, argues Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Chinese officials say they are only interested in loosening restrictions on domestic trade (adopted in 1993) but they recently raised the issue at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which only deals with international trade. This was seen as a testing of the waters, prompting a September 1 protest letter from six major conservation groups to Premier Wen Jiabao. “Given that bones of wild tigers cannot distinguish from those of farmed tigers, legal trade of any kind would open opportunities for criminals to ‘launder’ the parts of wild tigers and sell them to hapless consumers as farmed parts,” argued the letter, although presumably there would still be a premium attached to wild versus farmed product. But surely they are correct that legalizing the trade in China with its porous borders, rampant corruption and economic dynamism – would ensure this new production would be marketed internationally.

Curiously, both sides point to China’s bear industry as a model of what to expect from a new legal tiger business. Chinese officials boast that the bear business has helped a rebounded wild population through reduced poaching. Conservationists say there is no real evidence of this and warn that legalization is much too risky an experiment with China’s already decimated wild tiger population – now down to less than 50. They also fear that the widening bear products industry – now offering ‘bear power’ in shampoo, toothpaste, tea, power drinks and wine – would lead to a similar commercialization for the even more highly-regarded tiger.

From an animal welfare point of view, China’s 10,000-plus strong bear industry is a horror, with many hooked up to catheters to drain off bile. “Once you open the market there will be an explosion of breeding and all these wildlife parks, safari parks and zoos in every province, will not be satisfied selling one kind of product,” warns Grace Ge Gabriel of the (Massachusetts-based) International Fund for American Welfare, who recently debated Mitra in Washington, D.C.

So why now? Well, for one, there is the growing sense of frustration among entrepreneurs who went into this business in recent years (in some instances, in partnership with a Chinese government entity); they now have a growing number of tiger carcasses hanging in their refrigerated warehouses – frozen assets. Of course not all this is going to waste. A recent China Daily report found one farm that has a tiger carcass fermenting in each of 400 vats of wine and is doing a brisk, specially-permitted (otherwise it would be illegal), retail business in tiger bone wine (aged three and six-years), now generating more than $12 million in annual sales.

One hopeful development is the new collaboration between the international conservation movement and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), who don’t want to be tagged as contributing to species elimination. Even though tigers have been a veritable treasure chest for TCM practitioners for 5,000 years, many have begun replacing endangered species ingredients with plant substitutes. A new book – Mending the Web of Life: Chinese Medicine and Species Conservation published by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) – is just one sign of this new cooperation.

Pity though, there is still no Chinese-language version.