'Blood Of The Tiger': Shedding Light On China's Farmed-Tiger Trade

'Blood Of The Tiger': Shedding Light On China's Farmed-Tiger Trade

6:47pm Jan 10, 2015
Tiger face.
Joanne Stemberger / iStockphoto
  • Tiger face.

    Joanne Stemberger / iStockphoto

  • J.A. Mills is a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and lives in Washington, D.C.

    J.A. Mills is a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and lives in Washington, D.C.

    Scott Henrichsen / Beacon Press

In 1991, wildlife investigator J. A. Mills went to China to verify rumors about tiger farming. She worked undercover, for the World Wildlife Fund and an organization called Traffic.

"I mainly pretended I was a student of traditional Chinese medicine to try to figure out not only what was being traded, but why it was being traded," Mills tells NPR's Arun Rath.

She says she found China's first tiger farm — complete with a hand-written ledgers filling up with orders for tiger bone.

Back then, when tiger trade was first flagged as an issue, the main demand for bone was for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, the trade has changed to more of a luxury goods market — and Mills says that although China banned the trade of tiger bone in 1993, demand for luxury items still thrives today. She estimates that there are 6,000 tigers on farms in the country.

In her book Blood of the Tiger, Mills chronicles her decades of work to bring these issues to light and protect these animals.


Interview Highlights

On the purpose of tiger farms

A tiger farm is basically a feed lot for tigers where they're bred like cattle for their parts to make luxury goods such as tiger bone wine and tigerskin rugs. This is about wealth, not health.

Traditional Chinese medicine no longer uses or wants to use tiger bone and polls repeatedly show that most Chinese people don't want tiger products or tiger farming. This is about a handful of investors poised to launch a multi-billion-dollar-a-year luxury goods market. This about products looking a market, rather than a market looking for products.

On the conditions for tigers at the farms

Tigers in the wild are solitary, of course, except when ... they're mothers with cubs. These [farmed] tigers are basically kept in cages. They are speed-bred. Cubs are taken from their mothers almost right after birth so the mothers can breed again. And the males run around in packs.

It's something you would never, ever see in the wild.

On how tiger farming affects wild tigers

The problem with tiger farming is that it stimulates demand for tiger products, which in turn stimulates poaching of wild tigers because tiger products from wild tigers are considered superior, more prestigious and exponentially more valuable. Some people are even buying tiger products as an investment — much as they would, say, rare art or antique jewelry. And if even a tiny fraction of China's 1.4 billion people seek wild tiger products, we could lose the last 3,000 wild tigers before we know it.

On the future of wild tigers and elephants

I will say that the same forces are driving the slaughter of elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horn. It all involves organized criminals supplying investors hoping to profit from extinction. Unfortunately what's happened in the United Nations in the context of the treaty that governs ... international trade and endangered species is that everyone's gone silent.

So my main worry is that everyone will remain silent and things will continue as they are. Unless we address this phenomenon that's stimulating demand, primarily within China, we may lose these animals.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In 1991, a World Wildlife Fund investigator named J.A. Mills was undercover in China, looking into treatment of bears.

J.A. MILLS: I mainly pretended that I was a student of traditional Chinese medicine to try to figure out not only what was being traded but why it was being traded.

RATH: Around then, rumors of a tiger farm surfaced, and Mills was sent to investigate. She uncovered China's first tiger farm, complete with a paper ledger filled with orders for tiger bone, used for traditional remedies and luxury wine. Today, there are many more tiger farms in China. J.A. Mills tells the story in her new book "Blood Of The Tiger." She says that while China banned the trade of tiger bone in 1993, today, demand for tiger parts still thrives. And there are 6,000 tigers on farms in the country.

MILLS: The problem with tiger farming is that it stimulates demand for tiger products, which in turn stimulates poaching of wild tigers because tiger products from wild tigers are considered superior, more prestigious and exponentially more valuable. Some people are even buying tiger products as an investment, much as they would, say, rare art or antique jewelry. And if even a tiny fraction of China's 1.4 billion people seek wild tiger products, we could lose the last 3,000 wild tigers before we know it.

RATH: You write in the book - and it sounds confusing on the face of it - that - something that I wasn't aware of - that traditional Chinese medicine - a lot of the authorities have actually kind of sworn off using tiger products, but there's still this trade. What's going on? What's driving it now?

MILLS: This is a very important point. A tiger farm is basically a feed lot for tigers where they're bred like cattle for their parts to make luxury goods such as tiger bone wine and tiger skin rugs. This is about wealth, not health. Traditional Chinese medicine no longer uses or wants to use tiger bone. And polls repeatedly show that most Chinese people don't want tiger products or tiger farming. This is about a handful of investors poised to launch a multibillion-dollar-a-year luxury goods market. This is about products looking for a market rather than a market looking for products.

RATH: I'm trying to understand also how you farm an animal that's not domesticated. How are these tigers kept?

MILLS: Well, that's one of the things that really disturbs people who have seen wild tigers or know wild tigers well. Tigers in the wild are solitary, of course, except when they have - when they're mothers with cubs. These tigers are basically kept in cages. They are speed-bred. Cubs are taken from their mothers almost right after birth so the mothers can breed again. And the males run around in packs. It's something you would never ever see in the wild.

RATH: And of the trade in tiger parts right now, do we have of an idea of how much of that is farmed tigers versus ones that are poached from the wild?

MILLS: No. It's very difficult to get a handle on it. And part of the reason it is so difficult is that China's State Forestry Administration, which is in charge of the farms, is very opaque at what is going on. In fact, there has been a gradual reopening of trade despite the ban. And everyone from the United Nations to World Wildlife Fund to me personally have been trying to figure out, you know, what exactly is going on and what it means. And we just don't know. And without a DNA database, there's just no way we can tell what's from a farm and what's from the wild.

RATH: Your book and your work - it doesn't just cover what's happened with wild tigers. You talk about elephants and rhinos. And I just want to ask you because I have the opportunity here - you've been working on this for decades - do you feel confident that in 100 years, there will be wild tigers and wild elephants?

MILLS: Well, I will say that the same forces are driving the slaughter of elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horn. It all involves organized criminals supplying investors hoping to profit from extinction. Unfortunately, what's happened in the United Nations in the context of the treaty that governs trade - international trade and endangered species - is that everyone's gone silent. So my main worry is that everyone will remain silent and things will continue as they are unless we address this phenomenon that's stimulating demand, primarily within China. We may lose these animals. And so the only thing we can do is to speak out, and that's why I wrote this book.

RATH: That's author and wildlife investigator J.A. Mills. Her book is called "Blood Of The Tiger," and it's out right now. Thank you so much.

MILLS: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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