Photograph by Mike IVes, Associated Press
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A tiger sits in a cage at a farm in Vietnam. Studies suggest such facilities feed the illegal market in tiger parts.

Photograph by Mike IVes, Associated Press

The World Is Finally Getting Serious About Tiger Farms

Tiger farms supply the black market with skins, bones, and other parts. Now, at an international wildlife trade conference, China and other Asian countries face pressure to shut them down.

China came under pressure today for allowing the intensive breeding and sale of tiger parts, in violation of an international decision. The country has an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 tigers on “farms,” facilities that breed the animals for tourist entertainment while they’re alive, and for the luxury and medicinal markets after they’re slaughtered.

The issue was raised at the most important conservation event you’ve never heard of going on this week and next in Johannesburg, South Africa: the 17th conference of parties of Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty that regulates the international wildlife trade. One of the highlights of this gathering of 182 countries is how to crack down on the trade of Asian big cats, including tigers, clouded leopards, and snow leopards.

Tiger farms, which also exist in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, have long been suspected of feeding the international black market for illegal wildlife products. Last Friday, the first day of the conference, conservationists praised Laos for its announcement that it was “looking for ways to phase out tiger farms.”

The facilities breed tigers at an intensive rate, and the animals are believed to be slaughtered so their parts can sold to be made into wine, pseudo medicine, luxury home decor, and more. Tiger farms are also suspected to fuel the poaching of wild tigers, which still face serious threats of their own.

“Trade in parts and derivatives of captive-bred tigers perpetuates the desirability of tiger products, in turn stimulating poaching of wild tigers,” says Debbie Banks, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based NGO.

There are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 captive tigers on farms in Asia and Southeast Asia, compared to only about 4,000 left in the wild (though this may be an overly generous estimate).

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Confiscated tiger heads are stored in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repository in Colorado. An increasing percentage of tiger seizures have been found to be from captive-bred tigers.

The new proposal approved today requires all countries with captive Asian big cats to report to the CITES Secretariat, the treaty’s governing body, on how they are ensuring that big cats and their parts don’t enter the illegal trade. The Secretariat will use those reports to decide if certain facilities should be inspected. After that, the Secretariat will file a report, which could lead to certain countries being required to take specific steps to bring problem facilities in line.

This new requirement can only help, but: “There’s no good news for tigers,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy of TRAFFIC, the organization that monitors wildlife trade. Krishnasamy is the co-author of a new report that found that seizures of tiger products are continuing to increase, as is the percentage of seized products that come from captive-bred tigers—now about 30 percent, up from 2 percent in 2000.

“That’s really a reflection of the level of threat that these facilities pose in terms of tigers leaking into the illegal trade,” she says. Furthermore, tigers in the wild are still being hunted and illegally traded.

Feeding the Black Market

China established its first tiger farm in 1986 with the aim of producing bones for medicinal use. During the next 30 years, tiger farms spread throughout China and to other countries in Southeast Asia. Some believe the bones, ground into a powder, can cure rheumatism and arthritis. Others prefer tiger bone wine, which they believe imparts the drinker with the animal’s strength.

In 2007 countries passed a decision at a CITES meeting agreeing that tigers should not be bred for trade in their body parts and that countries with tiger farms should scale back operations to the minimum needed to support conservation. “It was about recognizing that if you want to save tigers, you can’t farm them,” Banks says.

Despite the decision, numerous reports subsequently showed that both the domestic and international trade in tiger and other Asian big cat parts was intensifying, not scaling back. China was breeding hundreds of tigers a year, and the number of tigers in captivity surpassed the number of tigers in the world.

The issue came to a head this June when Thai authorities raided the notorious Tiger Temple, a famous tourist spot long suspected of supplying captive-bred tiger parts to the black market. Authorities removed more than a hundred tigers and made a gruesome discovery: the bodies of more than 40 dead cubs. One monk was arrested trying to flee with tiger skins, tiger teeth, and about a thousand amulets containing pieces of tiger skin.

Proponents of tiger farms often argue that they take pressure off wild tiger populations, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“These facilities have been in existence for a very long time,” TRAFFIC’s Krishnasamy says. “If there was any indication that they led to tigers in the wild not being persecuted, we would have seen it by now. We haven’t. There’s no evidence to show that poaching of tigers in the wild has gone down.”

In fact, wild tigers are now so scarce that there’s evidence that the illegal trade in lion bones and clouded leopard bones is growing as a substitute. (See: As Tiger Numbers Dwindle, Will Smugglers Target a Different Cat?)

The proposal before the CITES committee today will benefit all Asian big cats. China chaired the working group that led to the recommendations (out of that also came charges China they watered down a report finding that they have failed to control domestic trade in tiger parts), yet they still made an attempt to delete the provision calling on countries to phase out tiger farms.

That provision “has proved problematic to implement for nearly 10 years,” the Chinese delegate said. Every other country in the room agreed—and agreed that that merely meant more measures were needed to require countries to truly crack down on tiger farms and the tiger trade. China conceded, and the provision calling on countries to phase out tiger farms remains on the books.

“The [CITES] parties have sent a clear and resounding message,” said Banks. “Tiger farms and trade in captive bred tiger parts and derivatives are a threat to wild tiger conservation and enough is enough.”

(Read more stories out of the CITES meeting in Johannesburg here.)

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to