Warning: this article does contain images that some may find upsetting.
Fashion, food, pharmaceuticals. These are just three of the ways in which the South China tiger is sold to Asia’s upper echelon. But despite being classified as ‘functionally extinct’, the imminent loss of the species does little to unsettle the elite – rather, should the South China tiger fall off the face of the earth entirely, the wealthy ‘owners’ of these tiger materials would likely become even richer.
In fact, evidence suggests that no matter how high the risk is to China’s most at-risk big cat, the nation’s government would do little to curb the trade of such a commodity. Despite a ban on tiger bone trade (set by the government and the State Forestry Administration in 1993), auctions for tiger parts have been rife, oftentimes advertised to the public via state television programming. Throughout today’s blog, we will be examining China’s pharmaceutical history, the nation’s complicated relationship with both nature and law, and if there is any chance of bringing this severely diminished species back from demise.
The History Of Chinese Medicine
Whilst records are limited, it is thought that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) gained prominence around the second century BC. Comprised of over 2,500 years of practice, Chinese medicine covers everything from herbal remedies to acupuncture, but somewhere in its murky middle, Chinese medicine has earned notoriety – namely, for its use of animal parts.
The earliest known example of Chinese medical writing exists in the form of a recipe book titled The Recipes For Fifty-Two Ailments. Written by doctors around the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the book covers everything from chanting spells and exorcisms, to lancing and cauterization. By the time of the book’s publication, China had been considered a world leader in medical research for just shy of a century and, due to their high esteem, the writings of many famous doctors have been taken as gospel throughout the centuries.
While a vast amount of studies and theories have contributed to the effectiveness of modern medicine, there are elements of TCM which have been proven to be unfounded in terms of their success. From turtles to tigers (and countless species in between), a troubling number of animals have been subject to slaughter in the name of medicine. Today’s scientists have determined that the use of bones, ivory, and even eyeballs offer no benefit once used in ointments or as consumables, and that the only individual to make use of such things would be the animal they are so cruelly taken from. So why does this foul element of an otherwise innovative practice still exist?
Animals As Ingredients?
Image via cleanmalaysia.com
Chinese alchemy is comprised of countless ingredients: over 1000 different types of herbs are utilised, as are minerals and even some toxic substances (lead, mercury, arsenic.) Some harmless, some dangerous, it seems that just about any tangible commodity will have at some point been used in pharmaceuticals throughout the years. Amongst the most controversial prescriptions are, of course, those containing animal parts: with 36 different species of animal used in TCM (including those that are endangered), it begs the question as to why the dangerous slope towards extinction is doing nothing to curb the use of these animals, even despite a lack of proficient evidence to suggest health benefits linked to the use of such ingredients. The answer may lie in that an assumed 80% of the world’s population rely on traditional medicines; it’s more likely, however, that the blame falls upon China’s most rich and powerful citizens – including the very individuals whose responsibility it is to monitor supposedly ‘illegal’ activities of this nature. It seems that, to them, promises to crack down on the trade of animal parts are little more than lip service; empty words uttered to appease conservationists around the globe. Even with laws in place to prohibit the trade (and, more recently, the threat of 10 years in jail for anybody found to be consuming endangered species), market stalls offering all manner of exotic antidotes still crop up in highly populated areas of the nation.
It would be relatively easy for China to put a stop to the trade of endangered animals: even with a population of over 1.379 billion, the People’s Republic remains one of the most regulated nations on earth. Limited internet access, stringent social identity laws, and tough measures on the working media are but a few of the rules imposed by the government; elsewhere, a crude comment or interpreted insult towards the nation can have you banned from stepping foot on its soil. For a country so capable of enforcing laws, one would assume it would be easier to shut down illegal activities that take place in plain sight. But the illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion-pound industry and, until the demand for ‘white gold’ (in the form of rhino horn), aphrodisiacs (in the form of reproductive organs), and animal skeletons (used in pharmaceuticals or simply as decoration) die out, China will continue to reap the benefits of this hideous trade.
The state of wildlife in 2017 is rather dire: a list compiled by the WWF demonstrates multiple pages-worth of vulnerable-to-endangered animals, many of which can be found on China’s own market stalls or in the opulent homes of the nation’s most prosperous residents. Numerous reports suggest that China are largely to blame for the downfall of our planet’s wildlife, and that without them, species such as the black rhino, yellow-breasted buntings, pangolins and, indeed, numerous species of tiger would be far more populous than they are today. Whether this is entirely true or the result of impassioned online musings is up for debate, but surely one cannot look the country and its cruel consumption of these animal parts and feel anything but indignation for those compliant in it.
An argument emits from within the country that China are, in fact, seeking to bring an end to endangerment to vulnerable animals. Indeed, much has been done to protect the much-beloved giant panda (Chengdu’s research centre has been instrumental in improving the animal’s status on the IUCN red list), and young student groups are working hard to have rare wildlife removed from their plates. Such actions are encouraging - certainly when looking forward to the next generation of conservationists and those with the power and means to make a difference – but at which point will these positive attitudes be deemed as ‘too little, too late’? When it comes to the South China tiger, it seems as if that time has already come: despite a (much-reiterated) ban on the trade and consumption of this particular species, there are around 200 government-permitted tiger farms, and this has been the case since at least 2005. The existence of these farms has done nothing to improve disastrous populations of the South China tiger – not one individual has been seen in the wild for 25 years – but, if anything, the operation of these businesses has only normalised the idea of breeding and consuming incredibly threatened animals. But should you ask the tiger farmers about their trade, they will tell you that what they do is actually beneficial to conservation; that, without them, there would be no tigers left anywhere, at all.
It is thought that more than 6000 tigers exist within the confines of these specialist breeding farms. Here, baby tigers are snatched from their mothers and made to suckle on dogs and pigs, forcing the mother to be inseminated almost immediately after giving birth. The process seems mechanical, about as far removed from empathy as one could imagine. Once the tigers are of a certain age, they are moved to ‘battery’ rooms – here, an average of five tigers fight for space in a room comparable on a scale to that of a battery hen. In their quest for comfort, the tigers may fight one another to the death, the bones of the deceased entered into a vat of rice wine and steeped for up to 8 years. Other tigers will be shot by farmers, their flesh stripped and sold to tourists (that’s right – people can visit these farms), their pelts removed and sold on or, once again, their bones set aside to be stewed in rice wine.
The tragedy of such a regal, powerful specimen being slain and reduced to little more than decoration, clothing, or the gruesome brown syrup of ‘wine’, is hard to overlook. It’s even harder to understand how farmers can truly believe that what they do helps to protect the species at all. In reality, it is probable that a majority of farmers do not think that they are actually actively aiding the survival of the species. Many of them don’t even believe in the supposed power of tiger wine, proudly denouncing their effects to the media yet noting the lucre of their livelihood (‘of course the medicinal claims are nonsense’, one academic as saying, ‘but there are 1.3 billion people in China and if only half of us believe it, it makes for very good business.’)
It’s this upheld belief which a possible six-hundred million people possess that enables the cost of a bottle of tiger wine to balloon in value. Add to that the circus-effect of this bizarre attraction, where inquisitive tourists are keen to sample such taboo produce, and the price of such a commodity will of course escalate. China’s government know this, and independent sellers know it, too.
It’s a mutually beneficial enterprise, the wildlife trade: the only losers here are the consumers duped into drinking their purchases, and the big cats who lose their lives as part of the liqueur’s production. Like in the ivory trade, it’s the people at the top who’re making bank: auctioneers make millions from sales, governments gain profit by permitting advertisements of said auctions on their state-owned television stations, and buyers rub their hands as their old, dusty bottles on the shelf gain value throughout the years, as the tiger slips ever-closer to irreversible obsolescence. It is inevitable that some day this will all come to an end, but far as current bidders and business-owners are concerned, the animal’s extinction could not be any better.
Considering again that China is an overwhelmingly regulated nation, it seems somewhat brazen for the auctioning of tiger bones to be so prevalent online. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine and akin to Google, is rife with forums for fans of bone wine. This is clearly not an oversight on the government’s part – should they wish to censor certain terms related to the wildlife trade, they could do so with ease – but for a nation so well-versed in controlling online content and its visibility, minimal effort has been made to block auction listings or any reference to the trade at all.
Time spent at these auctions only goes to show officials’ lack of concern regarding the trade. In instances of undercover journalists attending, lots often take place at the KunLun hotel, Beijing (a glaringly extravagant property in the nation’s capital, i.e somewhere you’d expect to find top security at every turn.) Here, police are present, but their attendance seems to be little more than a formality in the event of uproar. Indeed, when the undercover journalists do make their identities known, the police might make a half-hearted attempt to shut down or postpone proceeds, at least until the undesirable non-bidders have been nudged out of the door. Heinous as the wildlife trade is, the audacity of these auctions taking place in plain view is especially troubling – the notion of present law enforcement doing anything but enforcing laws, however, is another thing entirely.
History To Blame?
The downfall of the South China tiger could be considered something of an impending prophecy, though their horrific misfortune throughout the ages is far from an act of divine intervention. While little is known of the species before the mid-1900’s, their population was reported to be more than 4000 individuals in the wild around the 1950’s. During his reign, chairman Mao Zedong launched an attack on the tigers, declaring the animal as the ‘enemy of man’ and as little more than pests. Large-scale government campaigns and uncontrolled hunting activities saw the tiger’s population stumble from their thousands to just a couple of hundred, and the forests destroyed in the hunters’ wake meant that habitats were damaged beyond repair. Mostly culled and otherwise left vulnerable, the South China tiger had been pushed to the very brink.
The only known threats to the South China tiger are habitat loss and the fact that humans hunt them. Witnessing their decline from thousands in the ‘50s, to just thirty or so in the ‘90s, to ‘functional’ extinction today, leaves one with little choice but to pin the blame on the human race. But what if we could bring the species back from imminent destruction?
A New Hope, Or A Lost Cause?
Thousands of miles from their rightful home, there exists an ambush of tigers, present in a South African reserve known as Laohu Valley. Curious as the geography of this reserve may be, it may also be the final hope of resurrecting the South China tiger.
Founded in 2002, the Laohu Valley Reserve was built upon 17 defunct sheep farms in the Northern Cape, and is comprised of approximately 378 square kilometres of land, making it one of the largest protected areas in South Africa. Here, wildlife conservationist Li Quan and her husband Stuart Bray sought to protect and repopulate the South China tiger, taking in tigers raised in zoos and allowing their cubs, born in completely natural conditions, to grow up in the ‘wild.’
Whether Laohu Valley possesses the ability to reverse the extinction of the South China tiger remains to be seen. After all, should any of the tigers be permitted to be re-introduced to the species’ native home, the Chinese government would have to relocate many of its citizens for safety reasons: due to the species dying out, their endemic home has since become host to settlers.
Quan and Bray are not to be deterred, however: now with 19 tigers roaming free in South Africa, they speak of desire to have ‘300 wild tigers in a sprawling habitat.’ Noble, expensive, and controversial all at once, the project has experienced highs and lows (namely the marital separation of its two founders.) That said, Laohu Valley has seen more South China tigers born than anywhere else in decades, and the natural behaviours of the animals could provide a sense of hope to conservationists. Should the time come for the tigers to be moved back to China, one can only hope that they remain as protected as they have been in South Africa, and that they do not fall foul to yet another mass-slaying at the hands of China’s poachers, hungry for the billions of pounds that the species’ demise will surely guarantee them.
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