Dispatch from China: The time I got drunk off tiger wine (part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of this story here.

The automated gates chug and clatter open as a jeep, its windows ribbed with steel, noisily announces its arrival in the tiger park. Without the usual gaggle of tourists to impress, the occupants of a neighbouring jeep toss out a skinny pheasant as the driver shouts obscenities at a dozen lounging Siberian tigers.

One tiger finally takes notice and lunges at the fluttering fowl, which has enough brains to scuttle under one of the jeeps. The tiger, neither as sharp nor as small as the pheasant, slams into the vehicle with a thud. And as the hulking beast shakes off the dust and disappointment of his failed attempt, the pheasant dashes into the brush. The striped leviathan promptly settles back down, seemingly deciding that the prey isn’t worth the effort.

And why not, for these tigers are already well-fed, particularly by the 300,000 tourists who flock every year to the tiger park at the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding Centre on the outskirts of Harbin in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province.

But in the last year or so, the center has been subject to all sorts of media attention, from gruesome videos on the Internet of tigers eviscerating a bull as tourists gape, to reports of plans to reintroduce 600 of the cattle-fed, people-friendly tigers into the wild.

At a UN meeting last June in The Hague, the Netherlands, China’s tiger-breeding program was criticized for at best creating tourist traps, and at worst being flat-out farms for the animals. Indeed the Hengdaohezi facility was developed as a government-run enterprise to capitalize on the tiger-bone trade. Since the practice was outlawed in 1993, the park has depended on tourism for 80% of its $4 million per year operating costs. But shortly after the CITES meeting, Wang Wei, a deputy director at the State Forestry Administration in Beijing threatened the imminent reopening of the tiger trade, inviting 70 international tiger experts to Hengdaohezi that July to hear the merits of such a move.

So far, Western scientists are unconvinced that the proceeds from farming the animals might fund conservation efforts. Moreover they doubt whether conservation is something the facility is interested in or even equipped to do.

In a concrete bunker off-limits to gawking tourists, mother tigers nurse their cubs in tiny cages. The park’s chief scientist, Liu Dan, proudly surveys his charges. For him, the objective is straightforward. “Our goal is to reintroduce them into the wild,” he says. He denies media reports of an earlier failed reintroduction. The center did, however, send ten tigers to a small area resembling alpine forest in the Changbaishan reserve, close to the North Korean border. “It’s a very good wild habitat. A good exercise in all aspects of training, but still a big difference to the wild,” Liu Dan says to me.

The park contains roughly twice the number of Siberian tigers that exist in the wild, and letting loose even a few captives would have widespread conservation implications – especially in the small remaining natural range in northeastern China where perhaps ten tigers reside. But reintroduction wouldn’t be just about bolstering the wild population.

At Wolong Panda Reserve, keepers are increasing the population to maintain a healthy genetic reservoir in case of a sharp drop or extinction in the wild. Three hundred pandas is apparently the magic number, and tourists are no less impressed. There, as in Hengdaohezi, even keeping the animals caged can benefit conservation, as long as pedigrees are tracked and specific pairs matched to maximize diversity.

The tourists here love the liger enclosure – they can’t snap enough pictures as the tour bus slowly rolls past lions, tigers and their enormous hybrid offspring, all basking next to each other. The huge animals, a cross between a male lion and a female tiger, are a dramatic sight, but such disregard for intermixing could lead to bigger problems. The property also contains Bengal tigers, technically a different subspecies from their Siberian cohabitants, and the subspecies could produce harder-to-spot hybrids together.

In general, Hengdaohezi’s breeding strategy is crude compared with Western practices. Unlike US and European zoos that use computer models to calculate exactly which animals should mate together – and stud books to track every individual at Hengdaohezi, this tourist haven doesn’t control or record which tigers breed together

In captivity each female may mate with several male tigers when sexually receptive, confusing keepers on the paternity of the resulting cubs. The centre also rarely exchanges tigers with other breeding facilities. US zoos regularly shuttle tigers across the country to breed. The breeding facility is also not a member of the international stud book for Siberian tigers, which includes almost all US and European zoos.

For now, the Siberian tiger’s foothold seems sturdier than that of its cousin, the South China tiger. As a result of poor breeding and poaching, the South China population now numbers 66, all caged in a handful of zoos.

So the next time you’re happen to be in Harbin, should you drop by this place? After visiting, my take is an emphatic no! If you’re really curious, check out the Youtube videos of tigers at the park devouring a live bull in front of photo-snappy tourists. But that’s exactly the problem with this tiger farm. It’s a tourist trap, and an evil one at that.

Supporting this operation through tourism will encourage the tiger trade to reopen and possibly even harm the wild population. Basically you’ve just run over a cute little tiger kitten in a oil-spewing Hummer. You don’t want that to be you, right?