To the thump of loud dance music, four tigers roll over in succession and then raise themselves on their haunches. A man in a shiny blue shirt waves a metal stick at them, and they lift their front paws to beg.
The “show” takes place twice a day in a gloomy 1,000-seat auditorium — empty on a recent afternoon except for one Chinese tourist, two reporters and a security guard, its uneven floorboards, broken seats and cracked spotlights painting a picture of neglect.
Outside, hundreds of tigers pace back and forth in small, scrubby enclosures or lie listlessly in much smaller cages made of concrete and rusted metal. An occasional plaintive growl rends the air.
This is one of China’s biggest tiger farms, the Xiongshen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in the southern city of Guilin. It is part of a booming industry that is threatening to drive this magnificent animal toward extinction in the wild, conservationists say, by fueling demand for “luxury” tiger parts.
Encouraged by the tiger farming industry, China’s wealthy are rediscovering a taste for tiger bone wine — promoted as a treatment for rheumatism and impotence — as well as tiger-skin rugs and stuffed animals, sought after as status symbols among an elite obsessed with conspicuous consumption.
Wild tiger population threatened
The global wild tiger population is estimated at fewer than 4,000 animals, nearly half of them in India.
That trend, in turn, is making tiger poaching more lucrative across Asia — because it is cheaper to kill wild tigers and smuggle pelts and parts across borders than to raise captive-bred ones, and the wild cats often are preferred by consumers. Farming has removed any stigma from tiger products and undermined global efforts to stamp out the illegal trade.
“The argument put forward by the tiger-farming lobby is that farmed tiger products will flood the market, relieving pressure on wild tigers,” said Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “This is a ridiculous notion and has turned into a disastrous experiment.”
Tigers’ numbers globally have stabilized in recent years, yet they are still perilously low. And wild tigers are dying in record numbers in India, their main habitat, with many killed by poachers to satisfy demand from China.
The next two years could be crucial, environmentalists say. With calls for change increasing both within the country and outside, China is reviewing its 25-year-old wildlife law and asking itself: Will it stand on the side of its domestic tiger-farming lobby or will it stand on the side of wild tigers and global public opinion?
More wild than free tigers
Under global pressure, China banned trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners removed the products from their pharmacopeia. Conservationists say those moves tamped down demand and helped stabilize the population of Siberian tigers in north Asia.
But by then, China’s tiger-farming industry was beginning to take off. The private Xiongshen farm was established in 1993 by a former duck and snake breeder, Zhou Weisen, with investment from State Forestry Administration (SFA); its main competitor, a state-run farm in the northern province of Heilongjiang, set up in 1986.
Tigers are easy to breed in captivity, and their numbers went from a handful to a few hundred and then thousands. Today, there are thought to be between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers on about 200 farms in China, mostly born into captivity and many kept in appalling conditions — compared with fewer than 4,000 of the animals left in the wild.
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