Roaring demand for tiger bone tonic wine during the Year of the Tiger has delighted those taking part in the underground industry but sent chills through conservationists.
Despite a national prohibition on dealing in tiger body parts, online trade and tiger farms are flourishing, leading opponents to call for additional protection of the endangered species.
“In Western countries, people believe in Western medicine but there has seldom been as much enthusiasm for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as there is now, especially those made from animals,” said Ge Rui, Asian Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
She said tiger farms are now a major threat to the species. While the farms are tolerated, the State Forest Ministry issued a notice at the end of last year stating that tiger bodies from the farms should be sealed for safekeeping.
“The government has made a great deal of effort to curb the illegal trade in rare and endangered species in recent years,” Ge said. “But their work is mainly focused on cross-border trade. The government allows the operation of tiger farms.”
According to statistics from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there are now about 3,200 wild tigers worldwide.
In China, only about 20 tigers are thought to be left in the wild.
“The existence of tiger farms and increasing illegal trade in tiger products is seriously threatening this precious species,” she said. “In the Year of the Tiger, we should be doing more.”
Chinese animal rights groups recently launched an online campaign pushing for more protection of wild animals.
Despite the concern, consumers are still eager to get their hands on the illegal tonic wine. “Tiger bone tonic wine will surely be popular this year,” said a seller from the Beijing Xinghuo Company. “Nothing could be better than sending it to your relatives or leaders during the Year of the Tiger, both for good wishes and to keep them healthy.”
The company sells a wide range of wines, including a tiger bone tonic wine. A 500 ml bottle of tiger bone wine, made in Heilongjiang province, sells for 1,380 yuan.
However, a bottle of tiger bone wine, said to be from Tongrentang, the place that supplied medicine to the royal pharmacy during the Qing Dynasty for 188 years, is even more expensive. Such wine, made in 1990s, sells for around 25,000 yuan.
The wine, which is believed to have medicinal properties, should improve with age, so the older the bottle, the higher the price. Those produced in the 1980s can sell for 60,000 yuan for 323 ml. “Real tiger bone tonic wine is very popular in the market now,” said Sjkexiao, a 20-year old man who was looking to sell two bottles online that he claimed was tiger bone wine made in Tongrentang in 1984.
He said tiger bone tonic wine had been increasing in price in recent years. Tigers have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Tiger bone tonic wine is used in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism.
China joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1981. It imposed a ban on the harvesting of tiger bones and outlawed all trade in tiger body parts in 1993.
As a result, tiger bone remedies were removed from TCM dictionaries. “Medicines with parts from rare animals are not allowed to be sold now,” said a staff member, surnamed Zhang, at a Cachet pharmacy. She suggested another medicinal wine, named Hongmao Medical Wine, that was priced at 250 yuan and which claimed to contain leopard bones. “Money cannot buy a genuine bottle of tiger bone wine because of its scarcity,” she said. “You can never find such medicine in the stores now. Wine containing real tiger bones is really more effective than others.”
However, doctors were quick to question the medicinal value of tiger bone tonic. “It is the same as other medicinal wines,” said Yue Debo, a doctor with more than 20 years` experience in the department of orthopedics at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. “It doesn`t have any miraculous effect.”