Marco Werman: Champagne isn't exactly an endangered species. This next story, though, is about one endangered species in China: the Siberian tiger. China's caught a lot of flak in recent year for its lax attitude toward the trade in endangered species, including Siberian tigers. That's slowly starting to change. But reporter Stuart Leavenworth of McClatchy Newspapers found that it's happening very slowly in China's network of tiger farms. He says they're build as wildlife parks for tourists but they're really something quite different.
Stuart Leavenworth: The first I went to is in Harbin, which is in northern China. They put you into buses and they take you out in the middle of this large gated yard. There's 20 or more tigers and a jeep pulled up and somebody threw a live chicken out the window. We got to watch as the tigers descended on this chicken and ripped it apart. Initially, I was appalled by what I saw with the chickens but then I realized there's a much worse situation going on and that's that these parks exist to make tiger bone wine.
Werman: What is tiger bone wine? What is it believed that it does?
Leavenworth: It's just basically believed that if you drink this tiger bone wine, you'll be strong and virile. There's still a lot of people in China, mainly older people, who seek it out.
Werman: Is that the sole reason for these tiger park's existence?
Leavenworth: These parks were started by a government ministry. China used to be filled with Siberian tigers, at least the northern part, and traditionally you'd kill a tiger and use the bones to make wine. Well, at some point, somebody figured out "Well, if we could breed them, we'd have a lot more bones and we could make a lot more wine."
Werman: So the government in China argues that by allowing these tiger farms, they are alleviating the pressures on wild populations but it sounds like you're suggesting that these tiger farms are actually fueling demand.
Leavenworth: It certainly is the supply chain, although the government would not admit it now. The presumption is there's still hunting and trapping of tigers to improve the gene pool in these large parks. In addition, people who are true connoisseurs, they want to buy tiger parts or tiger bone wine that is from wild tigers, so this entire trade increases the demand for hunting of wild tigers.
Werman: Where's public opinion at in China on all of this?
Leavenworth: I think there's a growing awareness and I think that's the good news part of this story, is that China, especially its young people, are increasingly concerned and sensitive about the exploitation of animals. There's been a number of encouraging signs lately. A committee of the National People's Congress decided to toughen up an existing law for the consumption of any kind of animal that's protected. So this is an important step and a sign that the government at the highest levels recognize that China is getting a pretty horrible reputation for not enforcing its own laws.
Werman: Is public opinion changing fast enough to change the fate for those Siberian tigers that are still alive in China?
Leavenworth: There's discussion of a really comprehensive animal welfare law in China but these things are happening extremely slowly and for wild tigers in China, they're probably not happening fast enough.
Werman: Stuart Leavenworth there with the Beijing Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers and author of a recent investigation into China's tiger farms. This is PRI.