Why is the ‘Fox’ in Charge of the U.N. Tiger ‘Hen House’?

Why is it that China’s tiger-farming champions are in charge of a U.N. treaty’s effort to ascertain what’s going on with captive tigers and what threat they pose to wild tigers? Photo by J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia Commons
Why is it that China’s tiger-farming champions are in charge of a U.N. treaty’s effort to ascertain what’s going on with captive tigers and what threat they pose to wild tigers? Photo by J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia Commons

“China farms tigers? Why didn’t I know that?” This is the most common comment I hear when I talk about China’s industrial tiger farms and my book Blood of the Tiger.

“Yes,” I reply, “they farm them ‘just like cows and pigs.’ That’s how a Chinese government official described it to me during my first visit to China back in 1991.”

China farms tigers by the thousands to make luxury products such as tiger-bone wine, even though China’s State Council banned trade in tiger bone in 1993. Even though CITES – the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – decided in 2007 that tigers should not be farmed for their parts and products. Even though the mainstream traditional Chinese medicine industry no longer wants or needs tiger bone. Even though polls repeatedly show that the Chinese public supports the 1993 ban.

Tiger farming is a business venture, plain and simple. It is about wealth, not health. If China’s government lifts its 1993 ban — which there is intense industry pressure to do — a handful of investors stand to become very rich from the tiger skeletons now steeping in vats of wine inside farm wineries.

Here’s what befuddles me most: Why is the “fox” in charge of the tiger “hen house” at CITES? Why did a United Nations treaty put China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) — the very agency that promotes tiger farming and helped build some of those wineries — in charge of the Asian Big Cat Working Group, which is charged with assessing what’s going on with the world’s captive tigers?

The SFA reported in 2013 that there were “more than 5,000” tigers, primarily on two tiger farms — nearly twice the number now in the wild. The SFA has for years openly advocated legal trade in tiger bones from farms as a “conservation” tool and has admitted to already allowing trade in skins from farmed tigers. Tiger behind cage

Here’s the fatal flaw in the proposed “limited” legal trade scenario for tiger farms: Reopening tiger bone trade in China will rekindle a demand that nearly died out after the 1993 ban.

The mere existence of tiger farms and their burgeoning populations has stimulated demand. If legal trade in farmed tiger-bone products is allowed, some portion of China’s 1.4 billion potential consumers will want the “Champagne” version—the bones of wild tigers, which consumers consider superior, more prestigious and exponentially more valuable. Even if only a tiny fraction wants bones from the wild, the result would be a relative tsunami of demand.

Poachers in Africa have killed many more than 100,000 elephants since China first allowed “limited” legal trade in ivory back in 2008. How long would Asia’s mere 3,000 wild tigers last faced with unleashed demand from China?

So, why is it that China’s tiger-farming champions are in charge of a U.N. treaty’s effort to ascertain what’s going on with captive tigers and what threat they pose to wild tigers?

In answer to a CITES questionnaire about captive tigers sent out by the SFA on behalf of the Asian Big Cat Working Group, the SFA sent back a response that gave no numbers and provided answers that obfuscated more than enlightened about the legal status of trade in products from China’s tiger farms. Shouldn’t that be enough to disqualify the SFA from leading the working group?

I have been around CITES long enough to know that member countries must know that China’s SFA has an overriding conflict of interest with potentially epic consequences in leading the Asian Big Cat Working Group. I also know that many CITES member countries are now beholden to China or afraid of China or otherwise reluctant to question anything China does. But the SFA is not China. And the SFA isn’t even close to being an objective arbiter of matters affecting the fate of wild tigers.

CITES parties — including the United States — and the CITES Secretariat should quietly and politely relieve the “fox” from its charge over the U.N. tiger “hen house.”


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J.A. Mills

J. A. Mills is the author of Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species. She was formerly the Director of TRAFFIC East Asia and Tiger Program Officer for WWF.