Tiger medicine parks need strict supervision

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

Longevity, looks and, for men, virility are abiding concerns. Secrets to achieving one or the other abound. With the exception of healthy eating and exercise, they usually involve money and a leap of faith devoid of scientific or medical evidence. But they remain in demand, so much so that we even go so far as to prey on animals to satisfy them.

The use of animals in laboratory tests of experimental drugs and therapies before they are tested on humans is widely accepted, so long as the tests are transparent and the animals treated humanely. Their use to test potentially toxic products such as anti-ageing cosmetics is more problematic. Britain stopped licensing such tests years ago after campaigns by activists who exposed treatment that horrified consumers.

A report in today's Post Magazine about the production of Chinese medicines and wine from tigers in Guilin in southwest China will disturb many. The generic description 'tiger wine' describes it literally. The wine is bottled after tiger bones have been steeped in rice wine for years. The supply of the threatened species comes from a park that breeds and culls them.

Tiger-based remedies have long been used in China to treat ailments ranging from toothache to epilepsy to arthritis. Visitors to the park are assured that tiger medicine also increases strength, prolongs life and makes a man more virile. But the grim trade does nothing for the tiger. Fewer than 5,000 are thought to remain in the wild, including only 500 in China. Conservationists fear the trade in tiger medicine is poised to expand dramatically after next year's Beijing Olympics - and the influx of foreigners - are out of the way.

China has signed international wildlife treaties that ban all trade in tiger parts. But some officials argue that existing conservation strategies have failed and that tiger medicine parks could also provide a breeding stock from which to reintroduce tigers to the wild.

That is a bold claim that calls for government supervision of culling, marketing and breeding to ensure humane treatment and sustainability, and strict enforcement of the rules against park owners who put profit before conservation.