Liu Dan has been raising tigers for more than 20 years, but his
dream is to persuade the Chinese government to lift its ban on the
trade of tiger parts.
Calls from within China to remove the ban have grown louder in
recent months, causing many international groups to voice their
concerns that legalizing the trade of tiger bone for medicinal
purposes would stimulate demand for tiger products and increase
illegal poaching of wild tigers.
But Liu, chief engineer of the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding
Center in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the world's largest
Siberian tiger breeding base, remains unfazed. For Liu, a tiger
park without the opportunity to sell is simply not financially
"We cannot afford to raise the tigers, and we are very short of
money now," said Liu.
The Harbin tiger park's tiger population has grown from eight,
when the park opened in 1986, to around 700. It is set to be home
to 1,000 tigers by 2010.
"An adult tiger eats about five to ten kilos of meat a day, plus
medicines and other nutrients: it costs an average of 100 yuan
(US$13) for each tiger every day," Liu said.
"Although the government gives tax breaks, allowances and
expenses to train the tigers to live in the wild, the center's
major revenue comes from ticket sales, which average about 10
million yuan a year and is only enough to pay for a year's food
supply for 300 tigers," he said.
"We have to exercise birth control, replace beef with cheaper
chicken and cut meals for the animals," Liu said.
"We can not pay our staff their salaries in time and the center
is already in millions of debt. We can tell our staff their pay is
to be delayed, but we can not tell the tigers that they will have
no food," he said.
Liu added that the center is keeping more than 100 dead tiger
bodies in giant freezers, which cost more than two million yuan
every year to operate, in the hope the government will rescind the
Liu has complained of the problems of overpopulation in the park
for the last couple of years, but in 2002, park chiefs actually set
a target of having 1,000 tigers by 2010. It seems the park has
always been gambling on the government doing away with the ban and
calls into question their efforts to reintroduce tigers into the
In 1986, when the base was established with central government
funding, trade of tiger parts was still legal and the park made
money from selling parts of dead tigers. But in 1993, the ban was
imposed after fierce lobbying from conservationists as it became
clear the population of tigers in the wild was dwindling
alarmingly. The Chinese government also deleted tiger bone from
traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) dictionaries.
Conservationists are campaigning against the lifting of the ban,
denouncing it as "a bad business decision" which will result in
more illegal poaching and the virtual distinction of the
"It costs thousands of dollars to raise a tiger on a farm, but
as little as one bullet to poach one, and wild tigers are regarded
as more potent sources of medicine," said Ge Rui, chief
representative of the Asian Office of the International Fund for
Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Statistics show that only 2,500 breeding adult tigers survive in
the wild, 80 percent of them in India and only 50 in China, and
they are under severe threat from loss of habitat, a decline in the
population of their prey and poaching.
"A relaxation in Chinese rules would drive tigers to
extinction," she said.
Liu is desperate. He says he has tried other ways to raise funds
such as loaning tigers to other parks. But, he said, they escaped
and attacked people. He argues that the lifting of the ban would
not have such a negative impact if other measures were also
"Lifting the ban provides a good outlet for the dead tiger
bodies and generates more revenues for the parks, which will lead
to better protection of the animals," Liu said.
"We have done a lot of work to reintroduce the tigers to the
wild. By cutting in-breeding and improving techniques, we have
improved the ability and chances of survival for some tigers and we
firmly believe that one day it will succeed," he said.
"Thus the ban could be lifted with restrictions and precautions.
For example, the tiger parts will only be sold to medicine
companies that are registered and closely monitored.
"Meanwhile, if the government increases supervision and law
enforcement on illegal poaching, lifting the ban won't affect
tigers in the wild."
However, the statistics speak for themselves. The population of
tigers in the wild was in free-fall up until the Chinese government
implemented the ban on tiger trade in 1993. And still no
captive-bred tiger has ever been successfully released into the
wild, as Ge Rui points out.
"Captive-bred tigers have never been successfully released into
the wild due to gene inefficiencies," she said.
"The lifting of the ban will also soil the reputation of the TCM
industry," she added.
Zhang Wei, a professor at the Northeast Forestry University,
disagrees on this point.
"Using the resource is not to destroy the tigers. Leaving them
unused is no protection at all," he said.
"The ban on tiger parts has wiped out production of all
tiger-bone-based TCM in China, and hundreds of thousand-year-old
TCM prescriptions have become waste papers," he said.
Chinese tradition has it that every bit of a tiger has some
medicinal use: tiger bones for treating rheumatism, tiger urine for
treating eye infections.
Zhang said lifting the ban would give patients legal ways to
obtain effective traditional Chinese medicine and more choices in
The government remains tight-lipped in the controversy, but
sooner or later it is going to have to make a choice.
China is home to 5,000 captive-bred tigers. The government will
need to take responsibility for them if the tiger parks like
Harbin's go bankrupt. Either that or they can choose to take the
easy way out and legalize the trade of tiger parts, critics
Ge Rui believes the government should make the ban permanent,
halt the breeding of captive tigers and start phasing out the
Tao Jin, an official with the Heilongjiang forestry department,
said "We (the local tiger protection authority) have not received
any word of lifting the ban from the central government so far, and
the ban has not changed."
Before the Chinese government utters any response, it seems the
debate will continue to rage for a good while yet.
(Xinhua News Agency April 28, 2007)