The Xionsen Wine Company sells bottles of eight-year-old tiger bone wine, also fortified with tiger penis, for around £200. Skins, meanwhile, have become desirable items for China’s elite, who often have a “the more endangered, the better” attitude when it comes to home decor.
The Xionsen Wine Company, which is linked to the Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village, advertises wine in bottles shaped like tigers but not explicitly identified as containing tiger bone.
Mr Xie, who works for the company, confirmed that the wine contained tiger bone but said it wasn’t visible. “It’s banned by the government from being traded – in our wine bottles you won’t see any tiger bones,” he said. “What we do is like rubbish recycling. A tiger’s life expectancy is around 10 years; we use tigers that die of natural causes for wine producing, so we are not breaking the law.”
The Guilin Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village is the largest tiger captivity and breeding centre, or “tiger farm”, in China. Damning reports from organisations such as the Environmental Investigation Agency have instigated waves of international uproar about the existence of the farms, at which tigers are bred, never to be released into the wild.
Grace Ge Gabriel, regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, recalled a visit to the Guilin farm in 1999.
“There were many Chinese tourists in the stand watching when the cow was released into the enclosure, then five or six hungry tigers were let in,” she said.
“The tigers couldn’t take down the cow. They were climbing on it, tearing at it and injuring it, but not in the critical areas. So the tigers were taken out, then a tractor came in and ran over the cow again and again and again.”
Jill Robinson, CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation charity, said she observed tiger cubs at the farm with signs of malnutrition, on display in featureless concrete dens soiled with large amounts of urine and faeces. “We also saw tigers that had been de-toothed and de-clawed being made to perform tricks such as jumping through flaming hoops, riding on balls and the backs of horses,” she said.
Brutal public displays such as the one Ms Gabriel witnessed are now rare, although last week a worker at the Guilin tiger farm said they hold two indoor tiger performances a day, “sort of like a circus”.
Now it is trade rather than tourism fuelling the 200 tiger farms still thought to be functioning in China, housing at least 5,000 tigers in total. Earlier this month, Chinese authorities admitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) for the first time that the country allows domestic trading of skins of captive tigers.
“A lot of the consumption of endangered species in China is wealth-driven and is tied to corruption,” Ms Gabriel said, pointing to the case of Wen Qiang, the judicial official who was executed for corruption in 2010 and was found to have rhino ivory carvings in his house when it was raided.
Further evidence of the rise of wealth-driven demand came in March, when the practice of tiger killing ceremonies in southern China was exposed. The Chinese press reported that businessmen were showing off by paying to have tigers killed at “slaughter parties” before eating them. One unnamed government official told China Daily: “A friend once telephoned me to witness the killing of tiger, but I was out of town on business and missed the opportunity.”
At least 10 tigers are thought to have been killed in this way in 2014. Shortly after the cases came to light the government announced that the consumption of endangered species would carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
While the government is taking some action on cracking down on the tiger trade, campaigners say that lack of legal clarity and regulation has meant that the problem hasn’t subsided. One issue is that it’s unclear whether captive-bred tigers are considered legally endangered.
“These places [tiger farms] are stockpiling dead parts in freezers,” says Debbie Banks of the EIA, who has worked undercover at tiger facilities in China. “In other countries there’s a stringent process when a tiger dies. On paper, they are supposed to wait until a tiger dies naturally but in Wenzhou and Leizhou they are being killed. There’s no national database, no DNA files or even stripe pattern files of animals in captivity.”
There is pressure from the Chinese public to ban trade, with online campaigns raising the issue, and celebrities such as Jackie Chan lending support. But tiger farms have helped give a false impression about the amount of wild tigers alive today. There are thought to be less than 4,000 wild tigers in the world: 1,000 less than the total amount of captive tigers in China.
“On a campaign website we had many comments from people saying, ‘There are many tigers’,” Ms Gabriel says. “They were referring to tigers speed-bred in farms that will never go into the wild and don’t contribute to bio-diversity conservation. There was a lack of linking these things together.
“We’ve also seen that while the younger generation in China is outraged if they know tigers are being killed for trade, they’re not so outraged if the tiger in question comes from a farm.”
While the government faces criticism for not doing enough to stop illegal trade, the recent skin trade admission at the Cites meeting has given some campaigners hope that a positive step has been made.
“It doesn’t change the law, though,” said Ms Gabriel. “It doesn’t change the regulations that are promoting this activity. But the outcome of that meeting was that domestic trade, in China or elsewhere, is going to be subject to much greater scrutiny. Like any problem, admitting it is the first step towards recovery.”