Dark Secret Of The Farm Where Tigers’ Bodies Are Plundered To Make $286 Wine

by: richard jones in guilin, china

Behind rusted bars, a skeletal male tiger lies panting on the filthy concrete floor of his cage, covered in sores and untreated wounds. His once-fearsome body is so emaciated it is little more than a pitiful pile of fur and bones.

Death is surely a matter of days away and can only come as a welcome release. Wardens at the wildlife park in southwest China say, indifferently, that they do not expect him to see the start of the Year of the Tiger which began last Sunday.

‘What can we do?’ a female park official asks a small huddle of visitors with a sigh and a casual shrug. ‘He’s dying, of course, but we have to keep feeding him until he does. It’s against the law to kill tigers.’

Dying breed: One of the emaciated tigers in a cage at the Xiongshen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in Guilin, China

Instead, it seems, they die slowly of neglect. In row after row of foul, cramped cages, more tigers lie alone, crippled and dying. One is hunched up against the side of its cage with its neck grotesquely deformed. Another, blinded in one eye, lies motionless.

This shabby, rundown park in Guilin – one of China’s main tourist cities – is home to the world’s biggest single collection of tigers. Yet it is never included on foreigners’ tour itineraries.

For here, 1,500 captive tigers – around half as many as there are thought to be remaining in the wild – live out miserable lives in squalid conditions.

Each tiger costs around $9.28 a day to feed, and it is easy to see that the small clusters of visitors paying $11.60 each to wander around the cages and watch bizarre animal shows cannot possibly cover even the cost of food for the vast park.

The reason is the tigers, mostly Siberian, are far more valuable dead than alive.

For a 55lb pile of bones from a single tiger can be worth up to $348,000. There is a hugely lucrative trade in the skeletons at the Guilin park.

Dead tigers are driven 200 miles from the park, officially called the Xiongshen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village, to a huge subterranean complex where their fur is stripped from their carcasses and their bones collected to make tiger wine that can sell for $286 a bottle.

So for the park, where the tigers are bred for their bones, every year is the Year of the Tiger, and conservationists fear that the vile trade could be helping push some species of wild big cat into extinction.

On paper, China has signed international wildlife treaties that ban all trade in tiger body parts and claims to have outlawed the industry.

In reality, Xiongshen and other parks like it operate in a gray area of the law, using the bones of animals that have died naturally in captivity to produce ‘medicinal’ wine, apparently with the government’s blessing.

Tigers have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. Their eyeballs are used to treat epilepsy, their bile to stop convulsions, their whiskers to sooth toothache and their penises as a potent sexual tonic.

The most valuable parts, however, are the bones, which are used to make wine that is said to cure rheumatism and arthritis, and prolong life.

Despite its rapid modernization, the use of traditional medicine in China has increased rather than declined because more people can afford exotic treatments.

Going hungry: Tigers scrabbling for food in the cages at Guilin

Tiger bone wine, made by steeping tiger bones in huge vats of potent 38 per cent-proof rice wine, has for more than 2,000 years been one of the most expensive and sought-after Chinese traditional medicines, believed to bestow the tiger’s power and strength upon the taker.

It is popular among wealthy middle-aged men including, reportedly, some of the Communist Party’s senior officials and is said to have been used by modern China’s founder Chairman Mao Tse-Tung himself, in the superstitious belief that it counters the effects of aging and boosts flagging sex drive.