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Investigation: China Covertly Condones Trade in Tiger Skins and Bones

The Chinese government says it is committed to saving tigers from extinction, yet it legalized trade in captive-bred big cats' skin and bones

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Tigers at a captive breeding facility in Harbin, China. Photo: Rachel Nuwer

Trade in big cats like tigers may be illegal around the world, but that doesn’t stop the animals and their parts from winding up on the wildlife black market. Just 3,500 or so wild tigers live today, but since 2000 the carcasses and skins of more than 5,400 Asian big cats—including tigers—have turned up at airports, restaurants or dealers’ shops. And those are just the remains that have been found and recovered by authorities.

More than 90 percent of these tiger parts are destined for China. That country values them for use in traditional Chinese medicine and as trophies and charms. In 1993, China banned the use of tiger bone in any product, but the government encourages breeding of tigers on animal farms. Around 5,000 to 6,000 tigers live behind bars in around two hundred zoos and farms in China today.

While China insists that these tigers are bred for conservation purposes, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a conservation organization, says that China is breeding tigers for other purposes. One document the organization uncovered reveals that the government has legalized domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers. Rather than quelling demand for wild skins, the conservation agency argues, this legal trade only perpetuates demand for cheaper skins from wild tigers, which fetch a prices about three times lower than skins from animals raised in captivity.

A growing number of companies have permission from the government to deal in captive-bred tiger skins, EIA reports, and each skin is issued with a certificate of authenticity from the government. But when EIA representatives asked one trader in China where the skins actually come from, the seller responded, “You don’t need to care, so long as it comes with a permit. It’s as if you were asking a child trafficker, ‘Who does the child belong to?’”

As for tiger bones, which are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine and for making bone wine, their trade is banned but still occurs clandestinely, according to skin sellers that EIA spoke with. Tiger bone wine sells for hundreds of dollars per bottle and was found on sale at the same facilities offering captive-bred tiger skins. One trader told EIA that in 2005 the government issued a “secret” internal notification that authorized limited use of captive-bred tiger bones for wine and medicine. One company plans to turn out 800 tons of tiger bone wine per year based upon this loophole.

While China publicly calls for protection of its wild tigers, EIA points out that the government sends a conflicting message by allowing captive-bred tiger skins and bones to flood the market. This only stimulates demand for tigers and perpetuates illegal poaching of the animals from the wild, they say.

Watch the full investigation video here:

More from Smithsonian.com:

A Debate Over the Best Way to Protect the Tiger 
The Fight to Save the Tiger 

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