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January 25, 2011

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Tragic tale of the vanishing tiger

AS the Chinese Year of the Tiger wanes, tigers themselves are almost extinct due to years of hunting, both for fur and for traditional Chinese medicine. Zhang Qian reports on tigers, bears and other beasts.

Fierce and majestic tigers are symbols of power around the world, but the endangered big cats are helpless against predatory humans. They are extinct in some places and near eradication in others.

The situation in China is dire for the panthera tigris, Asian king of the jungle, forests and snowy northeast mountains.

Around a century ago, there were more than 100,000 tigers in the world, native to 13 Asian countries, but today only around 3,200 remain, according to The World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

As for China, there were around 200 Northeast China Tigers (also called Siberian Tigers and Amur Tigers) in the 1960s, only 20-30 in the late 1980s and only an estimated five to seven tigers in Heilongjiang Province in 1998, according to WWF.

As the lunar Year of the Tiger departs, there's increasing concerns that the tiger itself is leaving, not just for the 12-year zodiac cycle, but forever. By the time the next tiger year rolls around, tigers may only exist in zoos.

The South China Tiger hasn't been sighted for years and is believed to be extinct.

There's somewhat encouraging news for the other tiger native to China: the Northeast China Tiger. Efforts to preserve the habitat in northeast China is attracting some Siberian tigers. The discouraging news: even accounting for some Siberian cats, there are only around 20 Northeast China Tigers in China, according to Fan Zhiyong, species program director of WWF China.

Some are in zoos but there have been reports of poor treatment and starvation - dead cats are then used for traditional medicine, especially their bones.

Traditional cures

Tigers are protected in China and trade in their parts is strictly prohibited, though there is a black market.

The major cause of the decimation is loss of habitat due to industrialization and urbanization in the past century. Hunting is another reason the tiger is vanishing.

Although Western hunters wanted the tigers' beautiful striped fur, in Asian medicine the tiger is sought after for its bone, flesh and blood. Since the tiger is powerful, ingesting parts of the animal is said to confer vitality.

In addition, virtually every part of the tiger is used as treatment or cure for everything from insomnia to rheumatism. These include claws, teeth, nose, bone, eyeballs, tail, bile, whiskers, brain and penis (for potency).

Tiger bone, frequently made into wine, is the most famous as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat rheumatism and arthritis, general weakness, headaches, stiffness and even partial paralysis. There are also tiger bone pills, jells, plasters and other items.

Western medicine discounts the efficacy of virtually all tiger parts and notes that aspirin is only one of many excellent anti-inflammatory drugs.

Mole rate bone is an equally efficacious alternative for treatment of rheumatism and related ailments, according to some environmentally minded traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. But the mole rat lacks the majesty and mystical qualities of strength and potency of the tiger.

Before the 1990s any tigers were killed as pests and predators, but there was not huge demand for tiger parts as tiger medicine is expensive. But since income has been rising since the 1980s, many people today can afford the cost treatments and the benefits of tiger medicine are legendary.

This fresh demand is a major factor in poaching that continues despite laws and regulations.

Jack Chen, who is in his 50s, remembers what he calls the "magic power" of tiger bone wine that he bought for his ailing grandfather in the early 1990s. The man was partially paralyzed due to stroke, but after drinking the wine throughout the winter, he was able to move his arms and hands normally, Chen recalls.

China's wildlife protection law, issued in 1989, bans hunting tigers and calls for preserved habitat. In 1994, tiger bone medicine was banned, removed from the list of Chinese pharmacopeia, and all trade was banned.

"All the tiger products in the market were collected and destroyed," says Fan from WWF China. "From that moment on, tiger bone was no longer a legal medicine and poachers cannot make the excuse that tigers are necessary for medicine to save people's lives."

Black market

Due to the big profits in tiger medicine, a black market exists and limited sources mean the prices soar. One kilogram of tiger bones sells for 5,000-9,000 yuan (US$760-1,367), a tiger penis for 140,000 yuan and a tiger claw for 7,000 yuan, according to a report on

Chen, who bought the tiger bone wine for his grandfather, says the salesman from northeast China still visits him in Shanghai every year.

"There are so few wild tigers left that most of the tiger products in the black market are smuggled from Russia or Nepal, and early last year 12 Northeast China Tigers at a zoo in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, were starved to death, providing another illegal source of tiger bones.

Other animals

Tigers are just one of many wild animals with real or mythological health benefits, which also include bears (which are farmed under cruel conditions), deer, scaly anteaters, turtles, snakes and lizards. Bears (black, sun bear and moon bear but not pandas) are raised for their bile and deer for their antlers.

The situation of bears in Asia, especially mild-tempered moon bears, is appalling and there are major campaigns to save the bears and discourage cruel treatment, even by licensed farms, according to Jackie Yuan from the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, which has been trying to save bears and education the public about alternatives since 1994.

In traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile is used to treat numerous conditions, including heart problems, liver disease and diabetes. It is said to dispel "pathogenic heat" and detoxify.

False advertising about bile as an aid to sexual stamina has dramatically raised demand for farming. Bears are kept in small cages where they can barely move and milked daily with a tube implanted in the gallbladder.

"Extraction won't kill the bear, that's why it is done repeatedly but the pain kills the bears and the torture is unbearable," says Yuan.

"The bile of a healthy bear should be clear yellow, but the bile of farmed bears is usually dark and mixed with blood and pus," he says. "How can you expect it to save lives?"

There are at least 54 herbal alternatives to bear bile in its various medical applications, according to a joint study by EarthCare and the Chinese Association of Medicine and Philosophy (based in Hong Kong).

"We definitely do not have to use bear bile as it can be replaced by herbs, which are cheaper too," says Dr Sun Jixian from the Chinese Association of Preventative Medicine in Beijing. Many alternatives on the market contain the active ingredient Ursodeoxycholic Acid (UDCA), which can also be synthesized.

Moon bears are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as one of the world's most endangered species. There are only about 16,000 wild moon bear in China today.


TCM doctors say, of course, that they do not prescribe illegal tiger-part medicine. Those who are concerned with bears and other wildlife say they prescribe alternatives. Most purchases of animal parts are made by individuals, they say.

"The herbs can also work, but I must admit that they function a bit less effectively than animals parts do," says Dr Zhou Duan, chief physician of Longhua Hospital attached to the Shanghai University of TCM.

Yao Yanli, a 25-year-old graduate student of the Shanghai University of TCM, says instructors still teach them about medical functions of animal parts, but also discuss possible replacements including herbs and synthetic drugs.

"Compatibility of medicines is the essence of TCM," says Yao. "I understand that a single herb cannot work as well as animal parts, but I believe different compatible herbs can be effective."

Doris Rathgeber, a German doctor who owns a private TCM clinic Body and Soul Clinic in Shanghai, says that she learned about wild animal parts when she was studying TCM at Shanghai University of TCM. She says they are often effective for treating and curing ailments, but as an animal lover, she never considered using them in her practice.

"I have never thought of sacrificing an animal's life when synthetics or herbs can work just as well," says Rathgeber.

Wild animals should absolutely be protected and shouldn't be used for clothing or food, says Jason Xie, a member of the Shanghai Wild Animal Protection Association.

"But if animal-derived medicine is used to save lives, it would be understandable and cannot simply be judged right or wrong," Xie says.

He says it is still difficult to find a precise alternative in all cases, adding "this poses a dilemma in wild animal protection."


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