In the living room of a house at the end of a narrow country road in central Vietnam, a little way off the main highway, the skeleton of a tiger was laid out on the floor—the only complete one they had for sale, the man told the pair of visitors.
It was an attractive offer for someone looking to make tiger bone wine, a coveted brew made from bones soaked in rice wine, but what the visitors were interested in were the live tigers.
After some discussion, they were taken to a nearby house. Whoever owned it clearly had some money. It was nicely painted, with a large cement front yard, plenty of trees, and several expensive SUVs out front. It was guarded by a high steel fence.
The group passed through the living room and walked toward the back of the house. There, a woman removed a piece of the wall to reveal a hidden door. Behind it were three tigers, each in a cage, locked in darkness. A basket containing a few hundred chicken heads sat nearby. One of the tigers could be heard grunting, padding back and forth in his cage.
There were more tigers in the backyard, the woman said, inviting the visitors to sit down to tea in the living room, where she made the offer. They could buy one of the tigers, whose price is determined per kilogram, plus an extra fee for processing the skin. Delivery to any of several cities in China was included in the base price, and for no extra, the buyers could also have the bones, teeth, genitals, and claws if they wished.
They told the woman they’d think about it. Then they left.
The visitors were undercover investigators with the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC). This nonprofit based in the Hague works to expose the criminal networks behind the illegal wildlife trade, and since 2016, WJC’s Operation Ambush has been focusing on captive tiger facilities in Southeast Asia. They’ve shared with National Geographic several case briefings, photos, and video clips—a body of work that provides a rare inside look at one of the industries behind the multibillion-dollar black market in wild animals and their parts.
From elephant ivory to orchids, the illegal wildlife trade touches tens of thousands of species around the world. It’s become increasingly sophisticated, with organized networks obtaining, transporting, selling, and bribing their way to big profits. The illegal trade in captive tigers and their parts is just one piece of it.
Fewer than 4,000 tigers likely remain in the wild, but as many as 8,000 are held in captive facilities across China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Some of these are licensed by national governments and are open to the public, marketed as zoos, conservation centers, and tourist entertainment venues. One example is Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple, which operated under the guise of tourism. Many facilities are akin to factory farms, speed-breeding tigers like livestock to satisfy mainly Chinese and Vietnamese demand for their parts. Others are small-scale basement or backyard businesses existing outside the law.
The bones of captive tigers are often used for wine or medicinal paste; the skin is used for furniture upholstery and décor such as rugs or wall hangings, and the teeth may be set in gold and turned into jewelry. Being able to wear, display, or consume tiger products is a coveted status symbol among some Chinese and Vietnamese.
Tiger breeding centers started in China in the mid-1980s as an effort to reduce poaching of wild tigers, but conservationists say they only exacerbate it. “The very existence of these facilities could potentially invite poaching from the wild to stock them,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, acting director of the Southeast Asia office of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. Furthermore, their existence helps erase any stigma associated with using the parts of such a highly endangered animal, she says.
The commercial international trade in tigers and their parts has been banned since 1987, after a vote by the countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty regulating the wildlife trade. In 2007 the CITES parties approved a measure stating that tigers shouldn’t be bred for trade.
Yet captive tigers are showing up alongside wild tigers in the illegal trade. The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which tracks confiscations of tigers and tiger parts, estimates that nearly 38 percent of live, frozen, and taxidermied tigers seized by law enforcement between 2010 and mid-2018 were from captive sources, judging by the condition of the skins and the circumstances in which they were trafficked.
BASEMENTS AND BACKYARDS
The house in Vietnam with the tigers in the hidden back room appeared to be a family operation. “This is one of many small households [in Vietnam] keeping a number of tigers,” says Doug Hendrie, who heads the wildlife crimes unit of Education for Nature - Vietnam (ENV), which has been investigating Vietnam’s captive tiger trade since 2007.
Most of Vietnam’s captive tigers are in licensed public and private zoos, many of which are suspected of supplying the illegal trade, but the province of Nghe An, in north-central Vietnam, is known for having a number of illegal basement and backyard tiger operations. That’s where WJC went.
The older sister of the woman who made the offer to the undercover investigators had explained that as buyers they’d be invited to witness the killing to ensure that it was the agreed-on animal. They’d need to pay a 30 percent deposit to her Chinese bank account ahead of time and the remaining 70 percent after the tiger’s parts were delivered to China.
“Both [sisters] were very relaxed,” says one of the WJC investigators, who posed as a Chinese buyer. “It’s just a way of doing business for them. It’s just a way of making money.”
While much of the demand for tiger parts comes from China, Vietnam has its own long history with tiger consumption. Tiger bone paste, a traditional medicine, is a uniquely Vietnamese product, Krishnasamy says. The domestic trade of tiger parts within Vietnam is illegal, and tiger bone paste is one of the main drivers of the illegal trade within the country.
Usually the process begins with a broker assembling a group of people who agree to buy a tiger together, Hendrie says. The broker finds a tiger trader, handles the financial transaction, and sees to the delivery. The buyers then gather for the cooking.
The broker is also in charge of hiring a tiger bone “chef,” a specialist who makes the paste. The person boils the tiger bones, likely along with the bones of several other animals, for seven days, Hendrie says. The resulting brown substance, the consistency of porridge, is poured out, dried, and cut into bricks. Each buyer then gets a certain number of bricks, which are kept, sold, or given as gifts. Bits of brick are usually shaved off and mixed into wine and drunk, according to Hendrie.
When the WJC investigators first went to Vietnam, the younger sister told them, “My family has the most tiger skins.” During one meeting, she showed them a back room where four tiger skins were strung up on wooden pallets, two dried skins were rolled up nearby, and another two skins were soaking in some sort of disinfecting liquid. There was also a ninth tiger, whole and taxidermied.
To keep up with demand, she said, they sometimes import tigers from Laos. Vietnam’s western neighbor is another hot spot for captive tiger breeding and the illegal trade, so WJC also sent investigators there.
One place they went was Muang Thong, a notorious Laotian tiger farm, with links to international trade going back years. In 2009 a manager at Muang Thong told Target magazine, a Laotian publication, that “foreign business people came here to view tigers at the farm, but they did not decide to buy since [the] tigers were not big enough for export.” Commercial exports would have been illegal.
The magazine also linked Muang Thong to Vinasakhone, a Laotian company that the Guardian revealed in 2016 as one of a small number of businesses the government authorized to move volumes of protected wildlife through certain border crossings, in contravention of both CITES and Laotian law. In 2016 the CITES secretariat reported a site visit to the “Vinasakhone tiger farm," and a representative confirmed to National Geographic that the facility is also known as Muang Thong.
The Guardian also reported that it reviewed compelling evidence that Vinasakhone had been illegally killing and selling tigers to buyers in Vietnam, China, and the “Golden Triangle,” where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar meet and where trafficking of humans, wildlife, and drugs is rampant.
The Muang Thong manager who spoke to WJC investigators explained that tigers are killed to order. A potential buyer, usually Vietnamese, he said, arranges with the farm owner to visit the facility and choose a tiger. The tiger is killed, usually by lethal injection. Then a butcher—buyers usually bring their own—processes it.
“It’s about overseeing the whole process,” says Sarah Stoner, head of WJC’s intelligence unit. “You buy the whole animal as a commodity, and you can do whatever you want with it from there.”
One of the Vietnamese sisters also told investigators that they sometimes get tiger cubs from Africa. According to a recent report by two South African NGOs, the country has at least 56 captive tiger facilities. Vietnam has reported receiving more than 50 live tigers from South Africa since 2010, according to CITES trade data. South Africa also exports lion bones to Southeast Asia, which experts like Krishnasamy believe are passed off as tiger bones and enter the illegal trade. From 2008 through 2015, nearly 98 percent of lion skeletons exported from South Africa went to either Vietnam or Laos, according to the nonprofit welfare and conservation group Born Free Foundation. One of the importers in Laos—Vinasakhone.
In May Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced an order prohibiting the establishment of new wildlife farms and recommended existing ones be turned into zoos and safari parks. It followed a pledge at a CITES meeting in 2016 in which the government said it planned to start looking for ways to close down its tiger farming industry.
“This [order] is of serious concern as it indicates that the owners of [the six known] farms, all of which have been implicated in illegal trade, will not face prosecution,” said Debbie Banks, who heads EIA’s tiger program, in an email. “Secondly, if this is the model we have seen in Thailand—where tourists are able to interact with tigers, breeding continues at rapid rates, and multiple facilities have been implicated in illegal trade out the back door—there is serious concern that similar illegal trade and breeding will continue in Laos.”
The Laotian government did not respond to requests for comment.
Muang Thong has already split in two, with one of its new enterprises becoming an entertainment-oriented tiger center.
Vietnam, as part of its new penal code this year, made the possession of tigers a criminal offense and raised the maximum penalties for transporting, trading, and trafficking tigers and other endangered species. Nevertheless, Hendrie says, many zoos in Vietnam are still licensed to possess and breed tigers, assuring a ready source for years to come. The Vietnamese government and environmental police did not respond to requests for comment.
Vietnam has laws robust enough to crack down on the illegal tiger trade, but enforcement is often lacking because of limited resources, lack of expertise in combating organized crime, and, at times, corruption, according to Stoner.
There’s also another hurdle: “From our experience, Vietnamese tiger owners and traders tend to be more suspicious of Vietnamese buyers than Chinese buyers, which has made it difficult for Vietnam’s police to send in undercover agents,” says WJC’s chief of investigations, who stays anonymous for security reasons. It’s much less likely that a Chinese person would be an undercover police officer, he says. That’s why WJC always shares intelligence with law enforcement and offers to work with them, including “lending” undercover operatives.
The organization is working with Vietnamese law enforcement on this case, and Operation Ambush is ongoing. Usually WJC doesn’t share much publicly before cases have concluded, but the commission believes it’s important to immediately shine light on the brutality of the Southeast Asia’s tiger trade and the urgent need to address it.
“Everybody [in this village] knows what they’re doing,” says the investigator who visited the house in Vietnam and spoke to National Geographic. And yet the business continues to operate.