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Sharon Guynup on Saving Endangered Tigers (Part Three)

25 July 2015 | Five-Part Interview Series with Sharon Guynup by Craig Kasnoff

Sharon Guynup has written for the New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American, National, Popular Science, and many other significant publications. She is co-author of “Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat”.

Part Three: Tiger Farms

Q: What are “tiger farms”—and how and why did they come about?

Sharon Guynup: Chinese “farmers” have been breeding and raising bears for decades. In most cases, they kept them confined in quarters so small that the animals couldn’t even turn around—and they inserted a permanent catheter into their gall bladders to “milk” them for bear bile, a pricey ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Wildlife conservationist Judy Mills writes about the rise of tiger farming in her book, “Blood of the Tiger,” where she documents how some bear bile farms began breeding tigers during 1980s.

In 1986, there were about 20 captive tigers in China; by 1993, there were about 85; and now there are between 5,000 and 6,000 in perhaps 200 tiger farms, according to a 2013 report by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The two largest operations hold more than 1,000 tigers each.

Commercial breeding outfits cram tigers into tiny cement cages—a wide-ranging species that requires a large territory in the wild. The cats are fed poorly; many are emaciated or deformed; and baby tigers are taken from their mothers at birth so that females will quickly breed again, “speed-breeding” so they can produce another litter in as little as five months. About 100 cubs are expected to be born over the next year at just one breeding center, the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Garden in northeast Heilongjiang Province.

Many of the farms are run as tourist attractions, with some facilities even masquerading as tiger conservation sites. Meanwhile, they are industrial breeding operations that maintain stockpiles of bones and other tiger parts used in TCM. The bones are the most prized, steeped in rice wine to brew an extremely costly elixir. Tiger bone derivatives are a favored treatment for rheumatism and arthritis—and for impotence and flagging libido.

But these days, fewer people are buying tiger products as medicine: They have now become luxury products. There is a growing demand from China’s elite for both tiger bone wine and for the cat’s gorgeous pelt which is used in high-end home decor, products that flaunt wealth and power. The authors of a 2014 report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) wrote that, “ ‘Wealth’ [is] replacing ‘health’ as a primary form of consumer motivation.” CITES regulates legal trade of wildlife on the endangered species list under a treaty signed by 181 countries.

Tiger farms also operate on a much smaller scale in Vietnam and Laos. There are also farms in Thailand, where the Tiger Temple, a famous Buddhist monastery where tourists can feed and get their photo snapped with tiger cubs—was proven last March to be shipping tigers to farms in Laos.

In each of these nations, farming continues despite a decision in 2007 by CITES that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”

The Malayan Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

The Malayan Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

Q: How do China tiger farms impact tigers in the wild?

Sharon Guynup: In short: Industrial tiger farming makes millions of dollars for a handful of people and stimulates demand that’s killing off the last wild tigers.

Demand is spiking, perpetuated by China’s shadowy domestic trade in skins—and bones, Tiger farms drive this deadly commerce, and both perpetuates and stimulate the poaching of wild tigers.
Tigers are walking gold, commanding a small fortune on the black market—so each of the 3,200 wild tigers that remain have a price on their heads. As tiger products continue to command higher prices, poaching continues to skyrocket.

Q: How does the Chinese government feel about these?

Sharon Guynup: One government agency actively promotes tiger farming. China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) has contradictory roles, charged with protecting wildlife while also overseeing and promoting intensive tiger farming. The two largest industrial-scale tiger farms were opened with startup funding from SFA. Under Chinese law, “utilization” – a.k.a. sale – of certain products derived from captive-bred endangered species, including tigers, is legal, though sale of tiger bone is not. It’s created a shadowy domestic trade.

There doesn’t seem to be much comment on the topic from other parts of the Chinese government.

The Siberian Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

The Siberian Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

Q: How does the average Chinese feel about them?

Sharon Guynup: Public opinion is turning against wildlife consumption, especially among the younger generation, in part because of public service announcements, billboards and social media campaigns to educate them about the precarious state of the world’s remaining tigers. But if we’re going to save tigers in the wild, it will require action from the Chinese government at the highest levels—closing down the farms and using law enforcement to curb all trade in tigers from all sources.

Q: Do Chinese tiger farms give less “urgency” to saving tigers in the wild?

Because people see tigers in the zoo, performing in circuses, etc., they don’t realize that tigers are almost gone from the wild. Tigers that have been raised in captivity cannot be re-introduced to the wild for two reasons. First off, they are badly inbred or crossbred between two or more subspecies. And secondly, if tigers are accustomed to being around humans, they will readily enter villages, endangering themselves, local residents and livestock. So captive tigers are not insurance against extinction.

People need to know that once tigers are gone from the wild, they will be reduced to the status of pigs and chickens. It makes protecting tigers far more difficult.

NEXT Part Four: Tigers in Culture

For more information about endangered species go to
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered
For more information about endangered tigers go to Tigers In
Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered

Tigers in Crisis is Produced by Endangered Species Journalist Craig Kasnoff

to Promote the Plight of Endangered Tigers and the Efforts to Save Them.