Why China Wants To Kill Tigers – And It Is Not Medicines.

CHINA tigers

Why China Wants To Kill Tigers - And It Is Not Medicines.

Today a major political wild animal circus starts in Geneva where CITES, an organ of the United Nations, tries to deliver a new agreement of the trade in endangered animals.

The result of the negotiations on tigers of more than 190 countries will be the same as it has always been – as we will find out when CITES presents their results: CITES will put pressure on China to stop with tiger farming and China will find ways to avoid it or plainly not obey.

The big question that nobody is asking, is WHY?

Why is China so opposed to stopping the poaching business and why is China so opposed to stopping the tiger farming? This article will give the only answer possible.


This article was published on the day the CITES-negotiations start in Geneva (Switzerland): the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP).

This CITES-meeting has an agenda. The species ‘tiger’ is not even on the agenda, while other species like leopard, elephant and apes are. And we all know that tigers are threatened with extinction.

The big question for CITES is why tigers are not addressed more prominently on the agenda as it obviously sends out a bad signal. Another question is why CITES keeps allowing China to carry on with tiger farming, while already many years ago CITES urged China to stop.

This article expresses deep concerns about the way China constantly avoids necessary action towards stopping tiger farming, smuggling, poaching and trading of tigers or tiger products.

Tigers are doomed in China, as most people know, especially the ones in conservation and wildlife crime. But many people don’t know why besides pointing a finger to medicines – which is partly right.

4 in 1 – and from 10,000 to almost none

The tiger originates from China, as Chinese scientists like to point out. In Gansu province, the two million-year-old remains of a tiger were found in a town called Longnan, making the Longnan tiger the oldest tiger in the world. But China has – or had – more to offer. A short history lesson shows that China once was blessed with no less than four sub-species of tigers. The Bengal tiger roamed in and near Tibet, the Indochinese one near Laos and Vietnam. The South China tiger only roamed in China and covered the forests in the south and the fourth sub-species – the Siberian or Amur tiger, which the Chinese prefer to name it the North China tiger – roamed in the north of China.

Sjanghai zoo - South China tiger

Sjanghai zoo – South China tiger (source: Wikicommons)

More than 10,000 tigers once roamed the Chinese forests. But not any more, besides a handful of Amur tigers near the Russian-North Korean border and some Bengal tigers in Tibet (which the Chinese consider China).

The rest has been wiped out from China. The South China tiger is officially extinct in the wild, with only a few in zoos and a breeding farm in South Africa.

Chinese culture is not leading to tiger killings

The same history lesson tells us that China has a large cultural history with tigers, which in fact is no different than other countries – like India, Nepal, Thailand or other countries where tigers reside. People tend to believe that the Chinese people had a history of killing tigers but that is not the case – that is, not more than in other countries.

The Chinese people feared the tiger and this fear made the tiger become an important part of the cultural inheritance, which (of course) is different in China compared to other countries.

You might say that the old Chinese culture is not supportive of conserving tigers, but the contrary seems more likely as tigers are worshipped in cultural legends.

Systematic killing of tigers started in the Mao-era

However, the moment that the Chinese started to kill tigers systematically happened only recently – historically seen.

At first the Chinese tiger genocide (a strong word but highly applicable) was fueled by ‘the great leap forward’, the economical program of Mao Zedong, ruler of China from 1949 until 1976. Agriculture was key in his program and tigers – like we also saw within the former Soviet republics – were feared by farmers, which endangered the required economical progress. Most of the four thousand tigers in the south of China were killed because the Chinese government considered them as pests, even offering bonuses to hunters.


The agricultural program of Mao in action during his Great Leap Forward, lead to millions of deaths due to hunger (source: Tombstone]

In a later period Mao was confronted with ‘something’ else: his big plan didn’t work. More and more people got into trouble and without food. Because this subject (the great Chinese Famine) is still a taboo in China, the numbers of people that died between 1955 and 1961 remain unknown. The estimations of people that starved to death in that period, however, go up to as far as 45 million people.

TCM – the start of a brand in folk solutions

Mao needed to do something, being desperate that his plan didn’t work. He realized that there were not enough doctors or medical specialists to deal with all medical problems and created a solution – even one he didn’t even believe in himself. All folk remedies (effective or not) were collected under his command. The result of that collection was another red book: Traditional Chinese Medicines, more commonly known as TCM.

TCM red book

The little red TCM book – Source: Amazon.com

From that moment on wild animals in China were really doomed as wild animals were the main ingredients for TCM.

Something else is important to mention, as this is part of the reason why China is opposing the ending of tiger farming. China has the biggest army in the world. During the ‘Great Chinese Famine’ soldiers were suffering too. Because the army was considered more important than China’s people, the army became a main consumer of available TCM.

TCM as the start of international wildlife crime

When TCM was institutionalized in the fifties by the Chinese authorities all hell broke loose for wild animals. Even the seemingly endless forests of China started to get empty.

The Chinese mafia (or syndicates) started to realize they could make serious money out of wildlife. The demand for wildlife remained strong due to TCM but the supply was getting lower and lower due to the empty forests. In other countries however there was enough wildlife available but it was illegal to hunt abroad, although that didn’t stop people without moral.

World Wildlife Day 2015 Infographic

World Wildlife Day 2015 Infographic – source: African Wildlife Foundation

This was the moment Chinese syndicates stepped into a very profitable activity. The Chinese mafia started to create (illegal) ways to get wild animals from neighboring countries. They started organizing international poaching, smuggling and trafficking wildlife, which basically was the start of the international wildlife crime as it is called today. In 2015 this illegal business was estimated at US$ 23 billion – even going up to more than US$ 40 billion.

Easy money

Why is wildlife crime so interesting? There are two main reasons.

The most important one is the profit-side. The amount of money you can make with wildlife crime is mind-blowing, because the demand is high and the supply is low. Prices are skyrocketing. A panda can get as high as one million US$, a tiger easily to US$ 400,000 – if marketed and distributed wisely, which is easy for the Chinese syndicates.

The costs of poaching are low: a poacher will get a couple of hundred dollars, smugglers the same. Sometimes a bit more. For the syndicates these amounts are considered pocket money because of the prices they can ask for their products – like oils, potions, tiger bone wine (business gifts), amulets, meat (for certain restaurants), skins (for furniture or clothing). Of course we can’t forget the pills because TCM was and still represents a large demand.

TCM products

Credits: unknown.

The other side is risk-avoidance. The risk of wildlife crime was always considered low if you compare it with drugs, human trafficking or weapons. Why? Because the chances of getting caught were like zero and when you were caught, chances of a conviction were also considered zero. Nobody cared in the beginning.

So for the syndicates it was easy money.

Until 1973.

The slow start of CITES

When the world realized that more and more species were getting extinct in countries like China, Myanmar, Laos, Bangladesh, Russia, South and North Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and India (almost all neighboring China), it called for action. In 1963 the UN decided to act but it took no less than 10 years (!) before CITES was installed.

First meeting of CITES. Source: sdg.iisd.org

In those 10 years the Chinese syndicates were unattended and were able to go on with the slaughter of wild animals.

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. All import, export, re-export and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention has to be authorized through a licensing system. Each Party to the Convention must designate one or more Management Authorities in charge of administering that licensing system and one or more Scientific Authorities to advise them on the effects of trade on the status of the species. The species covered by CITES are listed in three Appendices, according to the degree of protection they need.

It took a while before CITES became effective. But when it started in 1973 it actually slowed down the massive killings of wild animals. As a consequence, the mafia responded, putting more pressure in their value chain – with bribing law enforcers, extorting and even killing people that were in the way. They also realized that with that pressure their risks became bigger and bigger. Because of all new regulations, new laws and the growing law enforcement, the Chinese syndicates created other ways of making money. Even an easier one: farming.

Farming tigers as the solution for CITES

In the beginning of the eighties wild animal farming was suddenly introduced in China. The most prominent ones were the bear-bile farming and the tiger farming. Also the term ‘speed breeding’ was introduced: a way to breed animals in a way that female animals are constantly pregnant, delivering as much offspring as possible.

In 1983 China was out of tiger stock. The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservancy Society (WCS) helped China with moving eight purebred tigers from US zoos to the first tiger farm in China. China started breeding tigers, probably at first with conservational reasons, but no one knows for sure. Later another three tigers were delivered.

The tiger farming grew bigger and bigger – without any tiger being released back into the wild (up until today). Estimations now say that China has at least 7,000 tigers on more than 12 farms across China. Other estimations go even up to 15,000 tigers and 20 farms.

Tiger farming Chris Slappendel

Tiger farming in 2013 by Chris Slappendel. Source: National Geographic.

Although the original idea of the tiger farming might have been conservation, the Chinese mafia realized that the farms were the ultimate solution for the growing problems to get tigers from the neighboring forests.

Farming tigers as an extreme moneymaker

To show the extent of tiger farming it is best to look into this example.

One farm of 1000 tigers can easily have a male-female ratio of 30%. So 700 tigers are female of which (low estimated) 70 percent is fertile (if not too young nor too old – which is easy to manage if you are leading a tiger farm). Let’s assume that 500 tigers can produce litters. A litter is on average 2-3 cubs. A tigress can have two litters per year (with speed breeding) so it safe to assume that an average of 2,5 new tigers per year per female tiger is easy doable. In China it won’t be impossible to double this amount with their knowledge and expertise on speed breeding.

This means that a tiger population in a tiger farm can easily double in one year.

In reality reports about tiger farms (in newspaper or from investigators) always give the same numbers of tigers, despite all new births (of which you see countless pictures on the internet). It is therefore safe to assume that the growth of tigers is being used to serve the demand for Chinese customers.

Considering the turnover of one single tiger (US$ 400,000), one single tiger farm of 1000 tigers can bring a profit of 1000 times US$ 400,000. Each year. Regardless of the stock, which represents an equal value.

Four hundred million US$ per 1000 tigers per year can be described as a fantastic moneymaker.

Money makes China wants to kill tigers

With this in mind we can say that money is the only reason why China wants to kill tigers, whether they come from the wild or from captivity.

Most Chinese citizens like tigers and don’t want them dead, surveys confirm that. Chinese medics and doctors warn about the devastating consequences of TCM, like the extinction of wild animals – which they openly do in newspapers and in brochures. The problem however is not with them although all news stories, gossips and rumors often indicate otherwise.

The one and only problem is the Chinese mafia that controls the tiger trade – in both captive and wild tigers.

CITES has become a paper tiger, especially after the WHO acknowledging TCM as an official medicine.

CITES is being considered a ‘paper tiger’ more and more: an organization that has lost its authority and power, as it obviously can’t stop China from tiger farming.

Especially after the decision of the World Health Organization, another UN organ, the position of CITES has weakened. The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), in May of this year formally approved the latest version of its influential global compendium, which includes a chapter on traditional medicine for the first time.

Source: Radiichina.com

Meaning: TCM is now an official medicine. The biomedical community says the WHO overlooked the toxicity of some herbal medicine and the lack of evidence it works, while animal rights advocates say it will further endanger animals such as the tiger, pangolin, bear and rhino, whose organs are used in some TCM cures.

For CITES it means a blow in the face as it weakens its position as ‘market master’.

Why are Chinese syndicates allowed to continue?

The main question of all this is never asked.

How is it possible that the Chinese triads are allowed to continue, even after so much pressure from CITES and animal welfare organizations on the Chinese government?

In the article the relation with the Chinese army was mentioned before. One of the tiger farms (in Harbin where at least 1200-1400 tigers are living) was established on a (former) military compound. Besides that, more than a thousand companies – owned by the Chinese army – deal with TCM. Reports of investigative organizations tell that a major demand in tiger products comes from the army, where tigers are considered as elements of power.

Part of the international law enforcement community suspects there the Chinese syndicates have ties with members within the Chinese Communist Party – which would explain a lot of the behavior of the Chinese government. Also suspicions are raised about Chinese leaders being customers of wildlife products themselves.

The lack of transparency and limited possibilities for independent research or investigations make it impossible to get to the bottom of these allegations, another reason to doubt the activities within the Chinese government.

What we also see with CITES and with law enforcement, is that attempts to stop tiger farming or increase investigations into syndicates involved in wildlife crime are consequently obstructed by China.

The coming CITES-meetings in Geneva and forthcoming results will be no different.

How to change this unwanted and extinction prone status quo?

The true challenge is how the world can persuade Chinese leaders like Communist Party Leader Xi Jinping to cut ties with syndicates to stop the worldwide trading, breeding and massacre of endangered animals.

To get him doing something, one has to bear in mind that trading is a Chinese invention. It is crucial to realize that China wants something in return.

What has the world to offer to save its precious wildlife?


A.o. Global Tiger Initiative documents, CNN, Worldbank, Cites.org, EIA-international.org, The Guardian, The New York Times. World Animal Planet, Tombstone (Yang Jisheng), The Making of TCM (Birdie Andrews), Blood Of The Tiger (Judy Mills), Historic distribution and recent loss of tigers in China (Aili KANG c.s.).