Despite an international ban on the sale of bones from exotic animals, winemakers in China continue to make wine using the bones of endangered tigers and, due to a loophole in the law, it may technically be legal.
A ban on the trade of tiger bones has been in place in China since 1993, with international and domestic laws saying tigers are a protected species. However, China continues to use tigers in its so-called traditional medicines despite these bans.
Traditionally, tiger bone steeped wine is supposed to cure ailments like arthritis. The bones of wild tigers are particularly sought after, but it seems that people are willing to settle for bones taken from tigers bred in captivity, too. It’s estimated that there are anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers being held in captivity in China, even as their wild populations dwindle to dangerously low numbers.
To be clear, this isn’t a recent relapse to old ways. There is strong evidence that using tigers in this way has never stopped. In 2011, the Guardian provided a particularly disturbing look at tiger bone wine auctions, while in June of 2008 investigations by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed that a number of supposed wildlife parks were in fact connected with the production and sale of tiger wine, breeding tigers in captivity, killing them and passing their parts on to other industries.
Indeed, this may even have been going on during the Beijing Olympics, with the South China Morning Post reporting that 600 tiger skeletons were found in one factory. Those skeletons were being soaked in alcohol to produce 200,000 bottles of wine. At that time the sales manager of the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park in Guilin was quoted as saying: “We can’t advertise our tiger wine in Beijing at the moment because the Olympics are coming up. When the Olympics are over, we will have more freedom to market our wine. Foreigners just don’t understand.”
The EIA investigation even showed that one factory claimed to have an official permit for the sale of tiger bone wine. This remains unconfirmed but the Daily Beast, which has a fantastic exposé on this issue, draws our attention to a report by the EIA in which it says Chinese government issued a notice to businesses in 2005 specifically allowing “the pilot use of captive-bred tiger bone for medicine.”
The Chinese administration seems reluctant to interfere in this practice and is even turning a blind-eye to the sale of products that really should be illegal. Just a few weeks ago a Chinese delegate admitted that China technically doesn’t ban the sale of tiger skins even though its laws are very much geared toward doing just that.
As noted above, tigers can be bred in captivity for supposed medicinal purposes, and any byproducts from that process, like the skins, might technically still be legal as long as they are sold under the guise of traditional medicine, but this is obviously a massive stretch and, much like Japan’s aping of its traditions to continue whale hunting, completely ignores international and even domestic laws, the fact that these species are endangered in the wild — not to mention the animal welfare argument against breeding wild creatures in captivity specifically for this purpose. Sadly, this isn’t a minority practice.
Investigators told the BBC that there’s strong evidence the sale of tiger skins in particular has reached an industrial scale. It seems China is following the exact letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit of it.
What can be done to change this, then? Given that China is rising as an economic power, Western influence is unlikely to really deter the domestic breeding and sale of tigers and tiger body parts. While sanctions may serve to drive home the international community’s disapproval, the change against this practice really must come from within China.
Fortunately, there are a number of Chinese environmental and wildlife groups who vociferously protest and continue to investigate this issue, but they are hampered by China’s dramatic censorship of things like the Internet and the press. Our attention on these issues, then, helps to at least empower groups both within and outside of China keep the pressure on.