China defies international community with secret trade in tiger parts

Published September 2016

Published by The Guardian
September 27 2016
With Oliver Holmes

China stands accused of deceiving the international community by allowing a network of farms to breed thousands of captive tigers for the sale of their body parts – in breach of their own long-standing pledge to stop the trade.

The Chinese government has allowed some 200 specialist farms to hold an estimated 6,000 tigers, whose skins are being sold as decoration while their bones are marinated to produce tonics and lotions. NGOs say this has increased demand for the products and provoked the poaching of thousands of wild tigers, whose global population is now down to only 3,500.

China is expected to come under pressure at this week’s Johannesburg conference of nations who have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES. The Guardian has found that Chinese delegates have tried to obstruct debate at the conference by rewriting a critical report and quibbling about wording in a key decision.

The Chinese insist that that their domestic market is nobody else’s business since CITES covers only international trade. They also point out that by breeding 6,000 tigers in captivity, they have significantly increased the population of the species and ask why Westerners should be allowed to breed cattle and pigs for the market if they are to be criticised for doing so with tigers.

The argument reveals a core debate, whether endangered species have an inherent right to exist in their own habitat, or should be allowed to survive only if they have some commercial value – “if it pays, it stays.” Some poor nations are pushing hard for a legal right to kill and trade the parts of elephant, rhino and tiger.

China’s State Council introduced its tiger ban in May 1993 under intense pressure, with the Clinton administration and CITES separately threatening trade sanctions. They closed down 200 factories which had been producing wine from marinated tiger bones. Chinese delegates told a subsequent CITES meeting that it had “banned all internal trade in tiger parts.”

Yet, four months later, in September 1993, China’s State Forestry Administration, SFA, which was responsible for enforcing the ban, approved the opening of the first tiger farm and even invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in its operation befoe going on to open up a network of similar farms, now estimated by NGOs to number 200.

CITES’ then law enforcement officer, John Sellar, later found that almost every part of the tiger’s body was being linked to some spurious medical benefit – the whiskers to deal with toothache; the eyeballs for malaria and epilepsy; the brain to cure laziness; the nose for childhood convulsions; the fat for haemorrhoids; the collar bone for good luck; the penis for sexual energy; the tail for skin cancer; the feet placed outside a house to frighten bad spirits. And, beyond traditional medicine, the skin had become a prestigious wall hanging for China’s wealthy new elite.

China went on to mark the anniversary of the ban, in 2003, by introducing a new licensing scheme for animal products which could be labelled with official stickers authorising their sale. A decade later, the Environmental Investigation Agency discovered that, having opened the farms, the SFA had quietly been issuing licences for the sale of skins from the tigers that were bred there. The SFA claimed that the skins were sold only for science and education, to museums and universities, but the EIA found at least 50% were for the plush apartments of the new elite.

Facing exposure, the Chinese disclosed that the wording of the State Council’s ban in 1993 had been much narrower than its public statements had suggested, that it applied only to trade in products produced from tiger bones, primarily wine. But, as NGOs dug deeper, it soon became clear that the SFA were also licencing the sale of tiger bone products. The profits were huge. The wildlife tracking NGO Traffic found tiger bone wine selling at $257 for a half litre while another NGO, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, found one farm alone had a cellar full of vats containing 1.2 million litres – worth an estimated $617 million. Wine from marinated tiger penis was even more expensive, at $490 a half litre. Meat was being sold at $100 a dish; teeth at $660 each; and whole skins for up to $22,000.
Inspired by China’s behaviour, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos also opened tiger farms, some of which were suspected to be not only breeding animals for the sale of their body parts but also laundering wild tigers which had been captured and stored there. Wild tigers now are close to extinction in Vietnam and possibly already extinct in Lao. China is believed to have only 50.

The issue came to a head in June 2007 at a conference in the Hague when CITES formally made a collective decision – numbered 14.69 – to go beyond its international remit, stating baldly that “tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts” and calling for all tiger farms to cut back their stock to the minimum needed for conservation of the species. Chinese delegates protested loudly that 14.69 was an intrusion into their domestic affairs, argued with the wording and formally noted their objection.

In Beijing, staff at the office of the IFAW, which had been particularly vocal, became aware of men ostentatiously following them in the street, and the director’s driver reported that some of the men had approached him and asked for detailed reports on the director’s activity.

Minutes of CITES meetings show that repeatedly since 14.69 was adopted, China has quarrelled with its wording; claimed that the decision was not made by consensus; and failed repeatedly to produce the information about its tiger farms which CITES has called for. When 13 heads of government met for the Global Tiger Initiative in St Petersburg in November 2010, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, called for an end to the tiger trade and yet his delegates joined with those from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos to ensure that the meeting’s final declaration was worded to allow their farms to continue trading.

The effect has been devastating. An analysis by the EIA found that in the 12 years from 2000, law enforcement agencies seized 1,031 tiger carcasses or skins – and that 90% of them were en route to China. Working on the standard police estimate that seizures represent 10% of real trade, this implies that 10,310 tigers had been killed primarily for China’s consumers.

In the build-up to this month’s CITES conference in Johannesburg, in spite of its track-record, China managed to take over the chairmanship of the Working Group on Big Cats and used its position to water down the findings of a report which CITES had commissioned from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The report, seen by the Guardian, embarrassed China by finding that they had “systematically exercised internal trading privileges for companies dealing in big cat skins and derivatives, produced mainly from captive breeding”. But the Chinese draft stated: “It appears that significant progress has been made by some parties in implementing legislative and regulatory measures to restrict trade in Asian big cat specimens.”
While the IUCN had called for urgent action to deal with “the growing use of tiger parts and derivatives as luxury items”, the Chinese draft reported that “the evidences and informations are not enough to demonstrate the growing use of parts and derivatives of Asian big cats as luxury items.”

The IUCN report went on to note that there was no evidence that China had restricted sales of tiger products to scientific and educational outlets, as they had always claimed; that NGOs had found tiger wine on sale; and that there was some evidence that stockpiles of tiger bone were leaking on to the market. In spite of this and the work of other NGOs, the Chinese draft claimed there had been “no systematic and comprehensive investigation”.

Chinese delegates went on to claim that there had never been a consensus to pass 14.69 in 2007; that there was doubt about the meaning of words like ‘trade’ and ‘internal trade’; and that in relation to China’s failure to destroy its stockpiles of tiger bone, this was something which had merely been ‘urged’ by CITES, not ‘ordered’.

This was poorly received by other members of the Big Cats Working Group, and an alliance of the US, the UK and India succeeded in re-writing the draft. The argument is expected to continue at the Johannesburg meeting.

Meanwhile, in Harbin, in north east China, one of the biggest tiger farms has found a new loophole in the law by cross-breeding tigers with lions. The Chinese say that the sale of ‘liger’ bones is not covered by the 1993 ban.

**** Sidebar story on China’s experiment in a legal market in ivory

Senior British officials say it was a mistake to allow four African nations to sell 102 tons of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. The sale, starting in January 2009, was intended to reduce the poaching of elephants by satisfying demand with ivory gathered from animals who had died of natural causes.

South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana were given CITES permits to sell the ivory for a total of $15.4 million. China and Japan have been releasing it into their domestic markets in annual tranches. But instead of going into decline, poaching has increased faster than ever. Critics say that the sales increased the demand for ivory carvings as a prestige possession and made it difficult for police to tell whether ivory being sold in shops and markets was from a legal or illegal source.

Two of the senior UK officials who backed the sale have now said it was a mistake. John Hounslow, who was head of UK CITES licensing from 2000 to 2011, told the Guardian: “In hindsight, it was a great mistake. It failed to satisfy demand. Indeed, it is difficult to understand now how CITES ever thought it would.” Rob Hepworth, who was directly involved in negotiations, wrote to the last CITES conference, in Bangkok in March 2013, to say the policy had failed, calling on them “to implement an urgent, indefinite and comprehensive ban on ivory trade including domestic markets.”

In contrast to its position on tiger farms, China has made significant moves to shut down its domestic market in ivory. The trigger appears to have been a decision by the US, in November 2013, to publicly crush six tons of seized ivory. Two months later, the Chinese responded by publicly crushing just over six tons. In February 2014, the US announced a ban on all commercial sales of ivory. A year later, the Chinese announced a one-year moratorium on all imports of ivory carvings. Finally in September 2015, the US and China jointly announced their intention to ban all ivory sales although China has yet to put any detail on the plan.

Supplier nations are divided. South Africa has tacitly accepted the change: in the past they have lobbied CITES for the right to sell more ivory but they surprised the NGO community by making no such proposal for this week’s meeting in Johannesburg. Twenty three countries with surviving elephant populations have called for a total ban on all ivory trade in all nations. Nevertheless, Namibia and Zimbabwe have tabled proposals which would allow them to sell more ivory.

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