Bad medicine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

It's feeding time at a zoo in southwest China and a huddle of tourists, some of them clasping young children, peer down from a concrete walkway into a shabby grass enclosure. Standing bewildered and alone in the centre of the enclosure, a calf is gazing wide-eyed towards a steel gate at the perimeter.

The gate clanks open. A magnificent, 250kg Siberian tiger jogs out and begins lazily circling the terrified calf. For a few seconds, the calf is frozen to the spot. Then it suddenly bolts towards the fence in helpless panic.

In two bounds, the tiger is on the calf's back, using giant paws to flail deep wounds into the flanks of its 'prey' and drag it to the ground. Onlookers whoop, laugh and clap. Children shriek in shock and excitement. One six-year-old girl buries her head in her mother's coat and sobs. Blood seeps out across the mud and turf as the tiger rolls the calf over and begins to tear out its throat before a tractor trundles into the enclosure, forcing the tiger back behind the gate. Workers scoop up the animal, its legs still twitching, to be carved up and shared among the zoo's tigers.

The show is over and the small crowd shuffles away to the next attraction. The tiger's five minutes of make-believe hunting are through - and it is returned to the harsh reality of the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park in Guilin, where the real prey is its huge collection of tigers. Confined in row after row of small concrete enclosures, with eight animals in each, the tigers are bred at a rate of 100 a year - not to entertain tourists or to conserve the species but to supply an illicit trade in bones and parts that generates hundreds of millions of yuan a year.

China has signed international wildlife treaties that ban all trade in tiger parts. But the Xiongsen park, just an hour's flight from Hong Kong, operates in a grey area, using the bones of animals it claims have died naturally in captivity to produce 'medicinal' wine.

Posing as Chinese medicine traders, we visited the park and found the supply of tigers is so systematic, it is difficult to imagine it relies on natural deaths alone.

Our reporter also gained access to a secret factory, in remote countryside 320km from the park, where the shocking scale of the trade became apparent. Here, 600 tiger skeletons were being steeped in alcohol to produce 200,000 bottles of wine to sell across China for up to 900 yuan per half-litre bottle.

Tigers have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. Their eyeballs are used to

treat epilepsy, their bile for convulsions, their whiskers for toothache and their penises as a potent sexual tonic. The most valuable parts, however, are their bones, which are said to cure rheumatism and arthritis and to prolong life. As the mainland modernises, belief in traditional medicine appears to be accelerating rather than declining as more people acquire the financial means to spend on treatments and buy an exotic and increasingly exclusive alleged safeguard against old age.

At Xiongsen, those age-old beliefs have been exploited to create a lucrative and apparently officially endorsed industry masquerading as a wildlife park. The park is filled with billboards boasting of its mission to save tigers with slogans such as: 'The protection of wild animals is a bounden duty of every citizen.' Far from protecting the tiger, however, parks like Xiongsen may be driving them to extinction.

Wildlife groups, appalled at what we found, say the park is breaching international conventions and encouraging the poaching of the fewer than 5,000 tigers left in the wild.

Craig Fitzpatrick, director of wildlife-trade monitoring network Traffic East Asia, says, 'As I understand the legal situation, all tiger bone and fur trade in China is illegal. Domestic trade is prohibited just as international trade is prohibited. There have not been any exemptions to that policy. When these captive-bred tigers are put on the market, a few wealthy businessmen make an awful lot of money. Poor farmers and villagers living next to tiger pop-ulations in places like India and Sumatra see the great wealth that can be gained by killing and selling wild tigers.'

The park's sales manager, Xhao Runghui, views the grumbling of wildlife groups as a nuisance and an inconvenient barrier to the park's attempts to generate profits. Speaking in his office, he complains, 'It's all very sensitive. We can't advertise our tiger wine in Beijing at the moment because the Olympics are coming up. Officials are nervous and think this trade will be bad for the reputation of China if people find out about it. When the Olympics are over, we will have more freedom to market our wine. The problem is that foreigners just don't understand. Chinese people know that tiger is the best medicine in the world. It cures so many things. It makes you strong. It makes a man more virile. It makes you live longer.'

Leaning forward across his desk, the 55-year-old confides, 'Last year, we sold our wine to some of our national leaders in Beijing. Even they recognise how good it is for your health.' Asked who the leaders were, he replies with a smile, 'I can't tell you - it's a secret.'

Xhao's claim that his customers include mainland leaders may be no more than a boast. What is known, however, is that the government is considering lifting its ban on the trade in captive-bred tiger parts to allow parks such as Xiongsen to conduct their business more openly - a prospect conservationists find alarming. At a conference on tiger preservation in Kathmandu, Nepal, last week, breeders from China are understood to have lobbied for the ban to be lifted, arguing that doing so would help save those in the wild by making parts more available and less expensive.

At Xiongsen, there is already little ambiguity or secrecy about its trade. Few liberal-minded westerners visit the park, even though the mountain city of Guilin is one of the nation's top tourist destinations. Alongside the slogans about wildlife conservation, notices in Chinese extol the benefits of drinking tiger wine.

Those benefits come at a price. After seeing the calf killed, visitors are ushered into the park's shop, where a tiger skeleton is displayed in a glass case next to a counter filled with tiger wine priced from 450 to 900 yuan a bottle. Then, in the park restaurant, waitresses hand out menus offering an extraordinary range of dishes derived from the tigers and other animals kept in the park, including bear paws for 7,200 yuan, lion meat for 380 yuan and 'Big King' meat for 480 yuan a dish.

'That's tiger meat,' the waitress tells us. 'It's very good for you. It makes you strong.' When we ask if it is fresh, she laughs and gestures to the tiger cages outside. 'Of course it is,' she replies. 'It's always fresh. It was killed here and just look at how many tigers we have.'

Back in his office, Xhao shrugs when asked how the park guarantees its steady supply of dead tigers for meat and medicinal wine. 'Tigers are tigers,' he says. 'They get into fights with each other and one of them will die. Other tigers become old, and when they grow old we have to deal with that.'

The tigers are 'dealt with' in a concrete complex of enclosures hidden away from the public areas. Here, the flesh is removed from their bodies to serve in the restaurant and the skeletons loaded into refrigerated containers to be driven to the wine factory, which belongs to the park's owners. That leaves valuable but highly illicit parts of the tiger, such as their skins.

'We don't sell skins,' Xhao insists. 'It's illegal to possess one and if the police come to your home and find one, you can get into a lot of trouble.' After a pause, he adds, 'However, if someone wants to make a substantial contribution to the tiger farm, towards our work, we will sometimes give them a tiger skin as a reward - a souvenir, you might call it, to thank them for their donation. We would give that person a certificate to show it came from the park and that it was a gift.'

How large would a donation have to be to merit such a reward? 'Perhaps a substantial donation of

live cows to feed to the tigers,' Xhao suggests, 'or maybe a large financial donation.'

The sales manager also assures us the park does not sell pure tiger bone. 'It is illegal and as you may know, the price for it is very high - 100,000 yuan for one kilogram,' he says before stressing, 'but we don't deal in that.'

Twenty minutes' drive away in downtown Guilin, the manager of traditional medicine shop Chun Hui Tang tells a different story. 'If you really want to buy it, you need to be aware it is very expensive and it is illegal. But if you are willing to pay, I can get it for you. Let me know how much you want and I will get it from Xiongsen.'

It's difficult to see how the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park could survive on gate receipts alone. During our visit, in the second week of the Lunar New Year holiday, there were only about 50 guests wandering around. Each guest paid just 75 yuan for their entrance ticket - giving the park admission takings that wouldn't cover 10 per cent of the 40,000 yuan needed every day just to provide meat for the tigers. They are high-maintenance animals but it is clear from the numbers being bred at Xiongsen that, when they die, they pay back the cost of their keep with a generous dividend.

When the park opened in 1993, the year China agreed to ban the trade in tiger bone, Xiongsen had

a handful of tigers. By 2000, it had hundreds. Today it has 1,300 of the beasts. Row upon row of new cages are being built to accommodate the booming population, with the newer enclosures providing

ever decreasing amounts of space for the 'wild' cats. On some cages, there are handwritten lists of numbers, some of which have been ominously crossed out in pencil.

Six hours' drive away, in the countryside complex where tiger-bone wine is made, similar expansion is under way. 'We can't keep up with demand,' says the factory's flustered business manager, Mr Liang, as he leads the way into the underground caverns where the bones are stored. 'We have the skeletons of 600 tigers here and 100 more in the refrigerator because we haven't got the space yet to put them all into alcohol. We've got to expand. Demand just keeps rising, especially in the past two years.'

The factory, in Dayi village, Pingnan county, is highly secretive; only invited guests - mostly Chinese medicine traders - are allowed to enter. The grey, nondescript complex is at the end of a dirt lane in an area best known for its duck and chicken farms. It sits behind high stone walls and a steel barrier manned by security guards.

'You can only come in by invitation,' our reporter was told sternly by a guard at the gate before being sent to an office in the nearby town. He had to convince staff he was a wine trader before being taken back to the factory under escort.

The factory is built into a hillside and the entrances to the caverns, manned by more guards, run from

the edge of the complex and stretch nearly 1km underground. In the lower of two levels of caverns, freshly skinned carcasses, refrigerated container-lorry deliveries from Guilin, are hung by chains from the ceiling, clumps of fur still attached to their legs.

Here, in the dim light reflected from solid-stone walls, workers in dark blue uniforms strip the remaining flesh from the skeletons and meticulously hose them down before submerging five or six at a time in 60-tonne earthenware vats of rice wine. The concoction is left to ferment for three or six years, explains Liang, producing two grades of tiger wine, before the liquid is drained into 1.5-tonne vats. It is then ready for siphoning into bottles.

'We have to be very low-key about our work here, you understand, which is why we only allow traders like yourself to enter,' Liang says apologetically, asking our reporter to hand over his phone and camera before entering the underground complex. 'We can't allow you to take any pictures inside here. Not everyone agrees with our business, you see.'

Between 150 and 200 workers, many of them wearing white laboratory coats, move silently around the vast subterranean complex and in offices where bottles of wine are tested, sorted and sampled before being sent out to cities across China. The factory is in the home county of Xiongsen's owner, Zhou Weising. Aged 44 and born, fittingly, in the Year of the Tiger, Zhou comes from a poor farming family but his park and factory are now reckoned to be worth about 400 million yuan.

Jill Robinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, says she believes Xiongsen threatens the very existence of tigers in the wild.

'I hadn't realised the trade in tiger wine was at that level - it's obviously mushroomed in the last few years,' she says.

'The Olympics are the tigers' last hope. I am sure of that. The floodgates will open after that.

There are people in Beijing who are concerned about the effects on wildlife but the whole trade is being stimulated by greedy park owners who are just exploiting the species for their own benefit. This

is happening right under the noses of the Chinese government and it needs to take a higher level

of enforcement.'

Only a few hundred tigers remain in the wild in China, most of them Siberian tigers in the nation's northeast. But there is evidence the country's thirst for tonics and medicines is leading to the slaughter and smuggling of tigers from India and Indonesia.

'This kind of trade sends out the message that tigers are a valuable commodity. It costs a lot of

money to raise a tiger in captivity but it costs nothing to trap them in the wild,' says Robinson. 'This business sends a message to people that if they can get them free in the wild they can make a lot of money, and this is why tigers are rapidly disappearing as a species.'

Commercial greed, not belief in Chinese traditional medicine, is driving the trade, she argues. 'It's just marketing. People who visit these parks are almost starry-eyed and they believe every magical quality these wines [are supposed to] have. Everyone wants to believe there is something that will make them look better and live longer.'

Mainland authorities are having 'serious discussions' about legalising the trade in captive tigers, Fitzpatrick says. Such a move would give Xiongsen the ability to market more aggressively

and expand its operations more quickly, killing and processing ever more tigers.

Before the Kathmandu meeting, Chinese officials reportedly presented a paper to the Convention

on International Trade in Endangered Species arguing that the ban on trade in tiger parts had cost the mainland's economy US$4 billion and denied many people traditional medical treatment. Captive-bred tigers presented, the paper argued, an oppor-tunity to reopen the market in bones and skins and provided a breeding stock from which to reintroduce tigers to the wild. 'Existing tiger conservation strategies and policies have never contributed to a solution to the problem,' it said.

'Everyone fears the trade in tiger parts is going to be opened up again in China,' Robinson says. 'There are people who want this to happen and what is going on at Xiongsen is a step in that direction.'

Back at the park, Xhao has more pressing concerns than the survival of the world's tiger population. 'The thing we are most worried about here is journalists,' he tells our reporter, apologising for the high levels of security at the tiger wine factory.

'Last year, a journalist from an official Chinese paper wrote about the factory and it caused quite a fuss just in China.' He shakes his head, pours out two glasses of six-year-old tiger wine and slides one across the table, before adding with a grimace: 'Can you imagine what would happen if foreign journalists found out what was going on inside?'