Acting on a tipoff, Vietnamese police pried open a basement door in Nghe An province and flicked on the light switch. Videos from the August 2021 raid show officers filing down an aisle past cage after cage of adult tigers.
Starved of daylight, malnourished and raised as livestock in concrete cells, each tiger was destined for slaughter to supply skins, bones and other body parts to the illegal wildlife trade.
One clip focuses through vertical iron bars onto a skinny striped body, hunkered in a corner, lungs heaving and eyes dilated from the commotion and sudden rush of tungsten light.
In total, the authorities arrested four suspects and confiscated 17 adult tigers from two home basements. But this wasn’t an isolated incident; evidence shows that tiger farming to satisfy mainly Chinese and Vietnamese demand for tiger-based traditional medicines and decorative curios is proliferating across Asia. In Nghe An alone, experts estimate that dozens more tigers remain in similar holdings.
While only 3,900 tigers are estimated to remain in the wild globally, a 2017 investigation by U.K.-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) calculated that more than 8,000 tigers are kept in captivity in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Over the past decade, around 40% of tigers seized from illegal trade were of captive origin, according to the report.
Tiger farming, where the animals are raised exclusively for commercial purposes, first sprang up in China in the 1980s in an effort to reduce poaching of wild tigers. Gradually spreading to nearby countries, breeding facilities now range from small-scale illegal setups, like the basements in Nghe An, to government-backed, licensed venues operating under the guise of tourism, and battery-farm operations holding hundreds of tigers.
Wild tigers in demand
Now, a new study that investigates the motivations of “tiger bone glue” consumers in Vietnam adds to the body of evidence that demonstrates that tiger farming cannot be legitimized as a means to alleviate pressure on wild populations. Tiger bone glue, or cao hổ as it’s known locally, is the primary driver of the illegal tiger trade in Vietnam. It’s made by boiling down tiger skeletons to a viscous paste that users then infuse with wine. Although medically unsubstantiated, the mixture is believed to treat rheumatism and boost virility.
Through interviews with 228 buyers and potential users of tiger bone glue, researchers found that consumers overwhelmingly favored products derived from wild tigers rather than farmed ones.
“Most of the buyers we interviewed prefer tiger bone glue from wild tigers over farmed ones because they believe wild bones are more potent,” Hoai Nam Dang Vu, a doctoral candidate at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the new study, told Mongabay.
As with many illegal wildlife products, tiger bone glue is considered a high-status luxury product, popular in an affluent stratum of society that is “part of a patriarchal hierarchy and notoriously averse to investigation,” Nam said. To engage with these unapproachable individuals, he and his research assistants had to earn their trust by learning to “speak their language.”
Driving a borrowed $300,000 Porsche and primed with newly acquired knowledge of real estate markets, luxury watches, antiques and Cuban cigars, Nam and his team began to infiltrate exclusive sports clubs and luxury condominiums in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, to converse with government officials, business owners, and members of the upper echelons of society, many of whom routinely use tiger bone glue.
Crucially, when the researchers asked consumers to choose between bone glue from wild tigers and from a hypothetical legal and regulated farmed tiger trade, one-third of consumers said they would still purchase bone glue derived from tigers poached from the wild, irrespective of legality or price.
The findings, published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, lend credence to calls from conservationists and wildlife trade experts for the governments of tiger-farming countries to phase out the practice. They say it perpetuates the demand for tiger products and removes the stigma associated with their use. Furthermore, as the new study illustrates, the preference among consumers for products derived from wild specimens means wild tigers continue to be killed by poachers.
“All tiger farming has done is increase the accessibility and acceptability of tiger parts in trade, perpetuated desirability and stimulated demand, and made a lot of money for criminal enterprises and wealthy business persons,” Debbie Banks, campaign leader for tigers and wildlife crime at EIA, told Mongabay in an email.
The recent extinction of tigers in countries that tolerate tiger farming, such as Laos and Vietnam, is also a stark reminder that farming does not ease pressure on wild populations.
Culture of minimal risk
The new study is the first to engage with a significant number of actual tiger bone buyers and potential consumers in Vietnam, according to Nam, whereas prior studies have been based largely on interviews with the general public.
Interviewees shared their consumer preferences candidly, Nam said, since possession of tiger bone glue carries minimal risk in Vietnam and traders and consumers consider themselves untouchable. It’s notoriously difficult to identify tiger DNA within bone glue, so prosecutions for possession are rare. Instead, authorities prioritize crackdowns on suspects caught directly trading tigers or their parts, as in Nghe An.
“There are a lot of loopholes and grey areas in current legislation in Vietnam that tiger product traders can abuse to sell the final product,” Nam said. “Some traders have even shown me tiger bone glue from their fridge … without any fear of [legal] sanctions.”
The profile of tiger bone glue buyers from the study will be critical to design effective campaigns that shift consumer behavior toward sustainable medical alternatives, Nam said. Buyers tend to be middle-aged, affluent and well-connected, with a penchant for luxury goods and traditional medicines, and have knowledge that helps them circumvent legal sanctions.
“Campaigns should be well designed and based on these insights into the actual buyers of tiger glue, not the general public, because this product is only coveted by a specific group of consumers — it is like Porsche or Rolls-Royce,” Nam said.
Governments must take action
While behavior change campaigns and phasing out tiger farming are solutions that could help wild tigers over the long term, an immediate audit of all tigers currently kept in captivity is vital, according to experts. DNA profiling and stripe pattern databases would identify the source of any tigers that end up in the trade so that the tiger facilities feeding the demand can be detected. These measures have been promised by authorities in tiger-farming countries for years, yet they remain to be implemented.
Alongside captive-tiger databases, Banks said that recovery of wild tiger populations will depend on governments in tiger-farming and -trade countries taking action to strengthen conservation laws and wildlife crime enforcement, and to clean up policies that facilitate commercial breeding of tigers in contravention of CITES regulations. “Mixed messages and a lack of leadership from the top have meant that not only are wild and captive tigers feeding demand, but other big cats that are being passed off to consumers as ‘tiger’ are at risk,” she said.
As host to the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Kunming in April 2022, China has a unique opportunity to lead the way in phasing out tiger farming and ending the tiger trade, Banks said. She also called on tiger range governments to apply lessons learned from parts of the world where wild populations are beginning to recover, such as India and Nepal, where tigers are not treated as commodities and commercial breeding is prohibited.
“We are seeing signs of wild tiger population recovery in India,” she said, “where strong conservation laws, deep-rooted cultural connections to the tiger and incredible tolerance among those living with tigers have been complemented by sustained government investment, including in inter-agency, intelligence-led enforcement to disrupt some of the more persistent criminal networks involved in trafficking.”
Dang Vu, H. N., Gadbert, K., Vikkelsø Nielsen, J., Reinhardt Nielsen, M., & Bredahl Jacobsen, J. (2022). The impact of a legal trade in farmed tigers on consumer preferences for tiger bone glue — Evidence from a choice experiment in Vietnam. Journal for Nature Conservation, 65, 126088. doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2021.126088
This article by Carolyn Cowan was first published by Mongabay.com on 29 December 2021. Lead Image: A captive tiger behind bars; more than 8,000 tigers are kept in captivity in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, twice the number of tigers left in the wild globally. Image by liux2x via Pixabay.
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