Heads I Win, Tails you Lose – China’s Tiger Trade

The focus of this article is the state of our feline friends – the tigers in the heart of East Asia – China. China’s intent in abiding by the laws that prohibit the commercial trade of these endangered species is highly suspect. Contrary to its initial ban on tiger bone trade for medicinal uses in 1993, China is actually encouraging the captive-breeding of tigers as a constant source for the fast expanding and ironically legalized domestic trade in tiger skins. The validation of these activities by the Chinese government has triggered an increase in the poaching of wild tigers thereby undermining the international ban on tiger trade set forth by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


China’s clandestine trade in parts and products of captive-bred tigers has been unearthed through an undercover inquiry by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). This government authorized trade activity is very misleading especially after China has ratified the CITES requirements which include:

  • Prohibition of international & domestic commercial trade in tiger parts and derivatives
  • Consolidation and destruction of stockpiles of tiger parts and products
  • Assurance that tiger parts and derivatives from captive-bred tigers do not enter legal or illegal trade

The staggering rise in the captive tiger population vs. wild tiger population in China is alarming. With support and funding from the State Forestry Administration (SFA) of China, the captive tiger population in China has grown from fewer than 20 in 1986 to between 5,000-6,000 in 2013, spread across up to 200 ’farms’ and ’zoos‘. Contrastingly the number of wild tigers has fallen from 4,000 in the late 1940s to approximately 40-50 animals in 2012.


China’s wildlife and agricultural laws and policies are framed conveniently to accommodate the breeding, domestication and utilization of wildlife for so-called “conservation” as well as for economic growth. Thus, under such a system, “utilization” or commercial sale of certain products derived from captive-bred endangered species, including tigers, is legal. The investigation by the EIA unraveled the commercial sale of luxury tiger skin rugs, which are made with skins sourced from captive-bred tigers and authorized by the SFA.

Skin and bones

Tiger skin and bones have come to form an integral part of the international and domestic trade in the heart of China. In the last decade, policies and legal framework have been established to authorize the commercial sale of captive-bred tiger skins, in the form of luxury skin rugs used in home décor. Captive-bred tiger skins are sold at a premium of 1.5 to 3 times the price of skins of wild tigers, leopards and snow leopards, ensuing in the decline of wild animals. A large number of companies licensed to process wildlife have facilitated the rapid sale of tiger skin rugs available through domestic breeding and smuggling of wild tiger (and other big Asian cat) skins from India and Nepal to established trade hotspots of China.

The use of tiger bone for medicinal purposes is banned in China since 1993 with the SFA confirming a strict ban on use of tiger bone. Despite the ban being enforced investigations revealed the continued use of captive-bred tiger bones which ought to have been destroyed as per CITES requirements. Tiger bones are soaked in wine to produce tonics which are marketed by traders to consumers who assume it is legal. In 2012 the EIA found a company that produced what they claimed was “Real Tiger Wine” with a major omission in the list of ingredients – Tiger bones. They soaked the bones in wine and then returned them to the stockpile to be available for audit and inspection.

Hard facts

China is in complete violation of the CITES requirements and is blatantly defying the united stand of the rest of the world to put an end to trade in tiger parts and products, and the artificial breeding of tigers which takes place as result of this demand. The parts of more than 5,400 Asian big cats have been seized since 2000. This indicates that the promotion and facilitation of trade in captive-bred tiger parts by China has spurred the commercial use of tiger bones and skins.

Way forward

China has not been able to live up to Premier Wen Jiabao’s intentions to end tiger trade since the regulations in China are aiding both the demand and poaching, thereby inflicting this evil of tiger ‘farming’ and trade to other areas like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. However the new Government – National People’s Congress could change the state of affairs through the following:

  • Amending existing laws to put an end to all trade in parts and products of tigers and other Asian big cats
  • Consolidating and destroying all possible sources and stockpiles of tiger parts and products
  • Sending an explicit message, of the objective to end all demand and trade, to tiger breeders and the industry

By way of this investigation, the EIA is urging the CITES nations to take necessary punitive action and impose effective measures to halt trade of parts sourced from captive-bred tigers. Failure to do so would accelerate the legal trade of tiger skins, encourage the commencement of legal trade in bones of captive-bred tigers, and without a doubt end with extinction of wild tigers. Change the course!

CI volunteer Urvashi Bachani helped summarise this article for Conservation India. The original report “Hidden in Plain Sight: China’s Clandestine Tiger Trade” is available for download from EIA’s website link provide above. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is an independent campaigning organisation committed to bringing about change that protects the natural world from environmental crime and abuse.

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