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HARBIN, China — The tourists piled into the bus, which took them through a series of gates into an enclosed, snow-covered field. Within minutes, the bus — modified so that a steel cage covered the windows — was surrounded by more than 20 Siberian tigers.

A Toyota Land Cruiser pulled into the enclosure and someone inside tossed out two live chickens that landed near the left side of the bus. Cameras clicked and blood splattered. Within seconds, the tigers had ripped the birds apart.

As inhumane as this scene from February might appear, it is just a small part of what happens each day at China’s “tiger farms.” Sanctioned by the government but accused of routinely violating Chinese laws and international agreements, these farms exist mainly to breed and kill tigers for the marketing of pelts and tiger-bone wine.

A visit to China’s two largest tiger farms, in the northern city of Harbin and in the southern city of Guilin, found animals in deplorable conditions. In both cities, merchants openly sold bone wine, despite a 1993 ban by China on bone products sourced from domesticated and wild tigers.

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China’s treatment of tigers was further thrust into the spotlight recently, when 15 people in south China were arrested for killing at least 10 of the big cats. According to a newspaper, the Nanfang Daily, the tigers were killed to provide entertainment and fresh meat for businessmen hoping to show off their wealth in the city of Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province.

Animal-welfare experts say such incidents demonstrate that the Chinese government has done little to enforce its 1993 ban on the trade in tiger bones, a requirement of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which China has ratified.

“China’s wildlife law has all kinds of problems,” said Toby Zhang, a Chengdu-based researcher for Animals Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization. “It effectively encourages people to breed tigers and other animals and use their parts for commerce.”

Traditional medicines

For decades, China has sanctioned and even subsidized captive-breeding programs of rare animals, largely to supply enterprises that manufacture traditional medicines. At scores of bear farms, for instance, workers harvest bile from domesticated bears to make potions that purportedly cure liver problems and relieve hangovers.

Until recently, Chinese officials said that, with tigers facing extinction in China and many parts of Asia, tiger farms helped relieve pressure on wild populations.

Yet many wildlife experts say the opposite may be true. With the growth of the tiger- bone market, wealthy connoisseurs reportedly seek products derived from wild tigers, thinking they’ll be more potent. Meanwhile, copycat tiger farms have sprouted in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and wildlife organizations suspect those have made use of captured tigers to enrich the gene pool of their breeding stock.

“There’s no evidence that the trade in captivity-bred tiger parts has relieved pressure on wild tigers,” said Debbie Banks, a wildlife campaigner with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which produced a report on China’s tiger farms last year. “If you look around Southeast Asia, you will find that countries with tiger farmers have fewer wild tigers than those that do not.”

The government’s State Forestry Administration, China’s version of a wildlife agency, started encouraging and underwriting tiger-breeding farms in the 1980s. Since then, the number of captive tigers in China has grown from about 20 to as many as 6,000, spread across scores of farms and zoos, according to the EIA. Since the 1940s, China’s wild tiger population has dropped from about 4,000 to 20 to 50 animals.

Tiger parks

The Harbin Siberian Tiger Park, the oldest farm of its kind in China, sprawls across 356 acres northwest of Harbin, in Heilongjiang province. Tour buses pull up and are greeted by cartoonlike statues of smiling tigers. In the gift shop is a photo of China’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, visiting the park.

“For visitors who love to see exciting activities, the Siberian Tiger Park is also a perfect place,” says a popular tourist website, which notes that tourists can buy chickens, ducks and cows to feed the tigers.

A park visit also reveals that many of the park’s 500 Siberian tigers are kept in small cages, visibly rolling in their excrement. Wildlife experts say conditions at the Harbin park are dangerous not just for animals but for visitors and workers, too. In January 2011, an employee driving a busload of visitors in the park got out to check the bus, which had gotten stuck in the snow. A tiger attacked and killed him as tourists in the bus watched.

The Harbin park isn’t a lucrative tourism enterprise. The number of visitors doesn’t cover the cost of feeding and breeding hundreds of tigers each year. The EIA’s Banks and other investigators say the real money comes from sales of tiger pelts, tiger-bone wine and other products that have been banned in China for two decades. The potential revenue gives park managers little incentive to keep the tigers alive.

According to state media reports, tiger bones in China fetch prices that top nearly $5,000 per pound. Prices for tiger-bone wine, derived by steeping the bones in alcohol, start at about $100 and can top $800 per bottle.

During a Feb. 16 tour of the Harbin park, glass cases of bone wine could be seen on display, including bottles that had an image of tigers on them. None were labeled “tiger bone,” a sleight of hand that allows the marketing of a banned product in China.

Public outcry

Some wildlife experts say it is only a matter of time before China closes its tiger farms. Peter Li, a consultant with the Humane Society International and a political scientist at the University of Houston, said public opinion in China is rapidly turning against the exploitation of tigers, bears and other animals.

A huge outcry erupted in 2010, when 11 Siberian tigers reportedly starved to death at the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in northeastern China. That and other incidents led the forestry administration to issue a statement against animal mistreatment, “utilizing animals for performance and engaging in illegal animal products trade.” But the abuses continue.

One of the more notorious animal farms is the Xiongsen Bear & Tiger Mountain Village in the southern city of Guilin.

A visit in early March showed that like its counterpart in Harbin, the Xiongsen park is home to hundreds of tigers, and several could be seen with serious injuries, including one that had had its tail chewed through; the dead portion had been left dangling. Tigers were also used in an indoor performance at the park’s “Theater of Dreams,” which also featured bears, monkeys and goats performing tricks, as their handlers cracked whips above them.

The park, which once attracted hundreds of tourists daily, was nearly empty on this particular Saturday. A taxi driver said very few visitors come anymore. Photographs are now banned within the park, and a guard was assigned to follow three visitors to ensure none was taken.

For several years, biologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have urged the National People’s Congress to strengthen China’s animal-welfare laws to end the exploitation of tigers and other animals. Xie Yan, a zoologist and associate research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said she hopes such a law will pass in the next year or two.

In the meantime, she and other wildlife conservationists are watching the prosecution of the 15 people arrested for the killings of tigers in Guangdong province. News reports indicated some of the slain tigers had been captured in the wild.

Xie said she doubts the tigers were killed for “entertainment,” as state media reported. She believes the customers wanted assurance that any purchased meat and bones originated from tigers, and so they insisted on witnessing the slaughter.

“It is very hard to verify if a product really comes from tigers,” she said. “These people may have wanted proof.”

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