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It’s What Chinese Officials Don’t Say about the Tiger Trade that Matters

By J. A. Mills

Tiger in wine

Authorities in China seldom respond to the consistent flow of new evidence that Chinese demand for tiger products drives poaching of wild tigers. When they do, it’s important to notice what isn’t said.

The New York Times recently wrote a courageous editorial about China’s “plunder” of Myanmar’s natural resources. “China’s insatiable demand for tiger and leopard parts, bear bile and pangolins has helped to transform the town of Mong La, near the Chinese border, into a seedy center of animal trafficking, prostitution and gambling,” it said. “The people of Myanmar…want this plunder stopped.”

A few days later, China’s official Xinhua News Agency published a retort from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying. “We firmly disagree with the editorial,” Hua was quoted as saying. “We are committed to strengthening cooperation with our neighbors, including Myanmar, to tackle illegal activities, protect natural environment and safeguard the stability of border areas.”

No confirmation; no denial.

MILLS-BloodoftheTigerThis week, Reuters published a story about an international anti-poaching conference in Nepal. “There is a culture among more and more wealthy people in China (to own tiger parts),” it quoted Michael Baltzer, leader of World Wildlife Fund’s Tigers Alive Initiative, as saying. “Tiger farming in China encourages (poaching) by stimulating demand for tiger parts,” said Debbie Banks, head of the Environmental Investigation Agency’s tiger program.

Two days later, the matter was raised at a press conference of China’s Foreign Ministry. “Some experts say that the soaring demand for tiger parts in China has caused a sharp decline in the tiger population, and frustrated efforts by all parties to protect wild tigers. How does China respond to this?” someone asked.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting wild tigers and keeps improving laws and regulations protecting wild tigers,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei replied. “Poaching, trading of tiger bones and using them as medicine are fully banned.”

No confirmation; no denial.

The survival of wild tigers depends on the world responding to what Chinese officials are not saying. Otherwise, the conversation stops cold, which only benefits those invested in farming tigers to build a voracious market for luxury goods like tiger-skin rugs and tiger-bone wine.

Here are some of the key points spoken and unspoken by China’s Foreign Ministry:

China is committed to “tackle illegal activities,” Hua Chunying said. What Hua avoided mentioning was the fact that the State Forestry Administration has already begun allowing some trade in tiger skins from farms, and has helped pay for farm wineries to mass-produce tiger-bone wine. Hua also avoided the fact that the State Forestry Administration has openly advocated fully reopening legal tiger trade in China—the very trade blamed for causing wild tiger populations to plummet before China banned tiger-bone trade in 1993. Never mind that all of the above is happening while the 1993 ban remains in place.

At this week’s press conference, Hong Lei handily chose not to answer the question asked. He did, however, mention China’s laws “protecting wild tigers.” China’s Wildlife Protection Law actually mandates the “domestication” and “consumption” of tigers and other endangered species, which a growing alliance of Chinese inside China are lobbying to change.

“Poaching, trading of tiger bones and using them as medicine are fully banned,” Hong said. But what about the tiger skeletons steeping in vats of wine at China’s farms, which now hold some 6,000 tigers? Why is that allowed? No one asked. And had they done so, there likely would have been no confirmation or denial.

Shouldn’t the world insist on straight answers when the last wild tigers are at stake?


J. A. Mills by Scott HenrichsenJ. A. Mills is the author of Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent SpeciesMills has worked for TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and Save the Tiger Fund. She is now a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and lives in Washington, DC.