Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Tiger Trade

Heilongjiang tiger park (c) Animals Asia

One of the most serious threats facing wild tigers is poaching, fuelled by the illegal trade in their parts and products. This trade is being further stimulated by captive tiger breeding operations in range countries (countries with wild tigers) as well as in non-range countries.


Tigers are kept and bred in often appalling conditions on ‘tiger farms’ and in so called zoos and other facilities across Asia in order to supply the trade in their parts and products. Their skins are taxidermied and turned into rugs for luxury home décor, and their skeletons are soaked in vats of wine to make tiger bone ‘health tonic’. Healthy markets for tiger parts/products are found in China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam.

In recent years this industry has developed to such a point that the number of captive tigers in these facilities now outnumbers that of their wild counterparts. While the world has less than 4,000 wild tigers, China, Thailand, Viet Nam and Lao PDR alone have an estimated 7,000-8,000 captive tigers*.

Not only do these facilities arms present serious welfare problems but they are also a serious present an additional obstacle to wild tiger conservation, further stimulating demand for tiger parts and products through their increased availability. As with moon bears and other endangered animals, the creation of a captive industry to supply a market for derived products has failed to alleviate poaching pressure on their wild relatives. On the contrary, this has only further encouraged the development of the existing market, one which often perceives the wild counterpart as more powerful, virile or otherwise more desirable. Additionally, the tiger farming industry is directly leading to an increased poaching pressure since, put simply, wild tigers are cheaper. On the other hand, captive bred tigers are costly to rear, their skins are prepared more professionally and their products are thus priced higher.

So how has the global community addressed tiger trade?

A total international ban on the trade in tiger parts and products was put in place in 1975 by countries signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES),countries which include all range states as well as those with tiger breeding operations. CITES has since then further required that:

  1. countries with ‘intensive operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale’ reduce the numbers of tigers in these facilities (see here) and
  2. range countries regularly supply information on wild tiger status, conservation and trade controls, as well as reporting progress on (1) above (see here).

However, (1) simply hasn’t happened and reporting on tigers to CITES has been patchy at best. Meanwhile, all evidence points to captive tigers and breeding operations growing in number as well as in geographic spread, as poaching of wild tigers and seizures of captive bred tigers continues.

What’s happened since then?

Update, October 2016 

All available information indicates that the market in tiger parts and products is alive and well, with wild tiger killing continuing apace.

This month, at the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of Parties in South Africa, China once again attempted to remove the tiger farming measure (see 1 above), but India, Nepal, USA, the European Union and even Lao PDR spoke out against this proposal. China stood alone, and when pressed, retracted its proposal.

In its statement during this discussion, the Lao PDR delegate took the unprecedented step of admitting it had three facilities housing approximately 700 tigers which were known to be trading tiger products to international buyers, and confirmed a Ministerial statement made the previous week which committed to closing facilities which were intensively breeding tigers.

Lao PDR is the first of the tiger-farming countries to publicly declare their intention to abide by the CITES measure. It is hoped Lao PDR will follow through, and that others will follow suite.

Update, January 2016

Further extensive and sometimes challenging face to face discussion of working group members took place in the side lines of the January CITES meeting, and agreed measures were put forwards for approval by the CITES Standing Committee. These recommended measures include making better use of forensic technology to investigate the origin of tigers in trade, taking effective action against online trade and undertaking targeted demand reduction campaigns. 

Additional measures for approval at the next meeting in September/October 2016 were also prepared, which would require Parties to undertake timebound country-specific actions to implement existing measures.

Born Free and colleagues issued a statement at the end of the meeting, urging countries with facilities that keep or breed tigers for domestic or international trade to demonstrate real commitment to tiger conservation by:

  • Improving enforcement against captive facilities engaged in illegal trade in tiger parts and derivatives
  • Amending legislation to prohibit legal domestic trade in tiger parts and derivatives from captive facilities
  • Preparing plans to phase out tiger farms
  • Destroying stockpiles of tiger parts and derivatives

Born Free will be in attendance at the next meeting, doing its utmost to ensure that countries meet their obligations under the Convention so that all possible measures are taken to secure a future for wild tigers.

Update, July 2014 - December 2015

By the next CITES meeting (July 2014), ten countries had submitted reports of varying detail and clarity, and an independent report on implementation was also submitted (see here for relevant documents). In order to assess these reports and chart a way forwards, a working group chaired by China and composed of various country and NGO representatives including Born Free was established, with the brief of identifying outstanding issues of concern, assessing existing measures and recommendations, and feeding back to the next meeting. 

Following this meeting, the working group designed and distributed a questionnaire to CITES member countries with the aim of filling the large gap in information and clarity. The next few months involved processing the questionnaire responses and agreeing on recommendations to be made to the next CITES meeting in January 2016. Issues of outstanding concern and matters upon which agreement could not be reached were also highlighted.

Update, March 2013

At the CITES Conference of Parties meeting in March 2013, the urgent need for a comprehensive assessment of current trade and demand for tiger products was widely acknowledged. However, without the necessary reporting [see (2) above], CITES could not conduct this assessment and make its recommendations.

On the last day of the Conference, with the clock ticking, two possible deadlines were proposed for countries to submit these reports and for CITES to make its recommendations – the next CITES Standing Committee meeting in July 2014 and the next Conference of Parties in 2016. China, with its thousands of tigers in hundreds of facilities, cited limited resources and a heavy reporting burden, and while stressing their commitment to international cooperation and tiger conservation, argued for the later deadline. Thailand and Indonesia followed suit.

India, the USA and the EU highlighted how critical the situation was and argued for the earlier deadline. With neither side backing down it went to vote and over two thirds came back in favour of the July 2014 deadline. The question of course was whether countries would abide by this decision and what recommendations would come out of the CITES process as a result.

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