Tigers and other farmyard animals
Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Friday, 29 January 2010
By Patrick Jackson
For every one wild tiger alive in the world today, there may be three "farmed" tigers in China.
They have been bred for their hides but also their bones, which are used to infuse some wines prized in South East Asia.
Some in the region believe that the consumption of certain parts of a tiger's carcass can give strength and virility.
China banned the trade in tiger bones and products in 1993 but that has not stopped the practice, which is currently on the agenda of an international tiger conservation conference in Thailand.
According to the World Bank, which leads the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), the trade is being spurred by privately run tiger farms in Asian countries. It has called for these farms to be shut down.
Tigers on the farms are kept in cages and are also allowed to chase cows or chickens for the amusement of the paying public.
"Our position is that tiger farms as an animal practice are cruel," said the World Bank's Keshav Varma, GTI's programme director, as he attended the conference in Hua Hin.
"They fan the potential use of tiger parts," he told the Associated Press news agency.
In order to get an idea of what goes on in these farms, which are often presented as parks for tourists, BBC World Service spoke to Judy Mills of Conservation International, who has visited some of them.
The world's entire surviving wild tiger population is somewhere between 3,600 and 3,200, conservationists believe.
In China, there are now close to 10,000 tigers on farms, says Ms Mills, while other estimates suggest the number may be around 5,000.
"These are speed-breeding factory farms," Conservation International's tiger specialist says.
According to her research, farm tigresses produce cubs at about three times or more their natural rate, bearing up to three litters a year. Cubs are often taken away from their mothers before they are properly weaned.
These cubs, she says, are usually made to suckle from other animals, such as pigs or dogs - their "wet nurse surrogates" - so that the tigresses can produce more young.
"The part [of the farm] which people rarely see is basically a winery in which the skeletons of grown tigers are cleaned and put into vats of wine," says Ms Mills.
The bones are steeped for years, she explains, and the length of the infusion determines the value of the wine.
Conservation International says it is very difficult to clarify the legal status of these farms in China.
"When I first visited a tiger farm in 1990, it was part of a fur farm raising racoon, dogs, mink and other fur-bearing animals for commercial use," says Ms Mills. "The owner of the farm was showing me the log of orders for tiger bones and skins and other parts and products from tigers.
"Then in 1993, because of international pressure, China banned its commercial trade in tiger bone and tiger bone products but, at the same time, these tiger farms were allowed to expand.
"It's something the conservation community has been trying to address with the Chinese government ever since."
Late last year, the Chinese State Forestry Administration promised to monitor tiger breeders more closely, and crack down on the illegal trade in tiger parts and products.
The fear must be, however, that with the Chinese Year of the Tiger due to fall on 14 February, demand for such items will be as strong as ever.