On a nondescript street near downtown Harbin, the Double Mountain Local Products Wholesale Center offers the usual array of kitsch items stripped from the wilderness: deer antlers, pelts and dried starfish. A request for tiger wine, a traditional brew of corpse-steeped cheap liquor with dozens of reputed medical benefits, raises a stern eyebrow from an employee who informs me that as such concoctions are illegal, they are not available at the store.
But at the mention of American money, a store manager intervenes – $100 would buy two bottles, and true to the employee’s words they are not at the store; they will be delivered via courier. Doubts about the brew’s authenticity are shooed away.
The manager is certain the bottles are the genuine article because, she says, “they came from over at that tiger park”. She is referring to the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding Center on the outskirts of the city. By most accounts, that tiger farm is an enviable success. Started in 1986 with 8 Siberian tigers, it is now home to 800 of the big cats. Compare that with the estimated 150 Siberian tigers in US zoos. The largest tiger-breeding facility in the world, Hengdaohezi – like its cousin down south at the Wolong Panda Reserve – has learned the art of churning out cubs, 100 this year alone.
And whether or not she is speaking the truth, the manager is highlighting a looming international stand-off between conservationists and the Chinese government.
China banned domestic trade of tiger parts in 1993, but that did not arrest the desire for their use in wine or traditional Chinese medicine. A black market fills the demand and goods can often be traced back to breeding centres. In August 2006, a tiger farm in Guangxi province was caught with 400 vats of wine, each stewing a whole tiger carcass. This past June at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, wildlife officials used DNA evidence to accuse the same farm of serving tiger meat.
In a walk-in fridge at Hengdaohezi – off-limits to tourists and journalists – 200 frozen tiger carcasses lie scattered, waiting to be turned into tiger wine and medicine, according to a breeding consultant for the park at neighbouring Northeast Forestry University. Whether Hengdaohezi benefits tiger conservation is questionable, but one thing is certain – if the government lifts the ban on the tiger trade, places such as Hengdaohezi will profit.
Liu Dan, the park’s chief scientist, didn’t see a problem when I paid him a visit. “We can use dead tigers to save live tigers,” he explains, promising to use profits for the centre’s genetic and reintroduction projects.
With its baffling breeding techniques and plans to open a market in tiger parts, Hengdaohezi hardly seems the safest place for Siberian tigers, but how they would fare in the wild is even more uncertain. So perhaps it is fortunate that the reintroduction campaign is mainly hype for now. Although media reports mention plans to release 600 of the captive tigers (apparently hoping to coincide it with the Beijing Olympics), the center has not yet separated any group for eventual reintroduction, selected any potential release sites, or built specialist training enclosures.
As Liu Dan broods over his nursing mothers, he defends the conservation work of the center, posing the rhetorical question that if they weren’t keeping the tigers around for a greater purpose, wouldn’t they be just another tiger farm? “From breeding to reintroduction is a long process,” Liu Dan says. “The program isn’t mature yet.”
A decision on the tiger trade ban can come at any time, according to Chinese government officials. As of 2006, all tigers have been required to wear a microchip, and some authorities say such tracking abilities combined with a certification process – a system that met with success with China’s ivory, crocodile and ginseng trade – could lead to a win–win situation for everybody. But lifting the ban may be illegal. US wildlife enforcement officers say China would be flaunting an existing international ban on tiger parts – and noncompliance could lead to sanctions.
For now though, the world waits for China’s next move.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, in which I visit the evil breeding facility and play Dance Dance Revolution with a Siberian tiger.