Bucking thousands of years of lore about the medicinal value of tiger bones for treating such ailments as rheumatism, in 1993 China agreed to ban all trade in parts and products from the endangered animals. Since then, Chinese demand for tiger bones has dropped, public acceptance of the ban is nearly universal and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have found what they say are better substitutes. Yet the population of wild tigers and it is believed that there are only about 4,000 left, fewer than 50 in China. Now 37 members of the U.S. Congress, at the urging of environmental groups, have written a letter to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao asking Beijing to take one more step toward saving the wild tiger from extinction: closing the country's tiger farms.
Their argument is counterintuitive. If wild tigers are on the verge of extinction, then doesn't it make sense to satisfy the residual demand for tiger products by raising tigers on farms? As it turns out, Tiger advocates say it is always cheaper to poach a tiger (as little as $10) than to raise one (which can cost $7,000), so the farms only stimulate and legitimize demand for products that have no medicinal value to humans.
Evidence for that argument has grown more persuasive, yet the politically well-connected tiger farmers have been lobbying the government, and the public, to lift the ban so that they can legally market wine in which tiger bones are soaked. On the eve of the Olympics, Beijing ought to jump at the chance to score points with environmentalists, the U.S. Congress and its own praise-hungry citizens. Chinese leaders should not only close the tiger farms but also do more to save the last of the noble and elegant creatures featured so prominently in Chinese art and culture.
Unhappily for tigers, they breed well in captivity, are not as big a tourist draw as pandas and cost more to feed. There are now more tigers in world zoos and private menageries than in the wild, and as many as 5,000 live on tiger farms in China, where their owners complain that they do not attract enough sightseers to pay to feed them, but they would be profitable if their bones were soaked in alcohol that could legally be sold as tiger bone wine. Conservationists say the farmed tigers must never be reintroduced into the wild because they don't know how to hunt, have developed a taste for cow and pig meat and have been cross-bred and inbred in ways that make them genetically suspect. Even their carcasses aren't worth as much as those of the wild predators that illicit connoisseurs crave.
Wild tigers are, in fact, priceless. Let's save them before it's too late.