China banned domestic trade in tiger wine in 1993, following international pressure, through an order issued by its State Council, its highest body.
The Chinese cabinet watered down the ban on Monday, saying: “Under special circumstances, the sale, purchase, use as well as export and import of rhinoceros and tiger products may be approved under law.” This, despite the fact that there is little evidence of their usage in medicine.
China’s Wildlife Protection Law formalises a permit system through which wildlife can be traded commercially and consumed on the acquisition of “special permits”. Trading permits (referred to as a ‘special marking’) can be issued for products made from captive-bred specimens of protected species if that species is included on separate “utilisation lists”.
Read | Of tiger bones & rhino horns
The first version of these lists were published in 2017, and while tigers, bears and pangolins were not included, additional species may be added at any time. These “special markings” may be issued for medicinal or food products, which means that if tigers are included in a subsequent version of the list, this could open up legal trade in tiger meat and tonic wines made using tiger bone.
The WPL has a captive breeding permit system that allows commercial breeding of protected wildlife. This system has underpinned the explosion of “tiger farms” in China, posing a threat to the survival of wild tigers, as the law does not specifically prohibit possession of illegally-sourced wildlife and wildlife products.
Farms vs wild tigers
The first tiger farm was established in northeast China in 1986, 13 years after the international ban on commercial trade in tigers. This was a government-funded project in which tigers were bred in order to be used commercially for their bones, claws, penises, skin and other parts. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, UK, there are 5,000 to 6,000 tigers currently bred in farms in China. The farms have expanded to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, said the EIA report.
Tiger bones are steeped in rice wine for anywhere between three to ten years and then bottled with a mixture of Chinese herbs and snake extract to produce a wine that is believed to bottle the virility of a tiger. It is often used as an aphrodisiac. Tiger bone wine steeped for three years could cost $80, a bottle of wine steeped for six years can fetch up to $155 and those steeped for eight years can cost up to $290 on the international market.
Indian wildlife experts say despite the tiger farms in China, the demand for wild tigers has always existed, and often outstripped the demand for bred tigers for two reasons — the virility of a wild tiger is considered “higher than that of one in captivity”, and the acquisition of a wild tiger is cheaper as there no upkeep cost involved.
There are two main tribes that deal in tiger poaching in India — the Pardhirs of Madhya Pradesh and the Banwariyas of Rajasthan and Haryana. They live in or near tiger-inhabited areas and continue poaching till authorities are alerted. They then move to another part of the country. The tribes have a strong social hierarchy and the clan leader divides areas of poaching for the clan.
Tiger bones sell at Rs 1.5 lakh per kg at the point of acquisition, which can go upto Rs 5 lakh to 6 lakh at the border.
Rhino horn has been traditionally used in Asia to treat fever and cerebrovascular diseases. More recently, belief in its efficacy in treating other ailments, from hangovers to cancer, appears to have increased demand. The prices that it currently commands — usually cited in the tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram (according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) — are disproportionate to any medical utility it might have. According to the UNODC, there are less than 28,000 rhinos of any species left in Africa and Asia.
While West Bengal has seen few incidents of rhino poaching, WCCB officials said over the past few years, Assam-based poachers have filtered into the state. A single horn can fetch upto Rs 10 lakh in the market. Rhino poachers are largely local to the North East — specifically to Nagaland and the Karbi Anglong region.
Siliguri and Kolkata
Siliguri is one of the major hubs of illegal wildlife transportation due to its proximity to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Officials said traders from all over India enter the town, which receives 600 trucks in interstate traffic every day.
Kolkata becomes a main hub due to its proximity to Siliguri. The WCCB West Bengal has carried out 35 operations in the past year, including seizures and apprehension of poaching gang members.