China's tigers pushed to the brink

Al Jazeera visits a Chinese farm using controversial methods of conservation.

    There are thought to be fewer than 300
    Siberian Tigers left in the wild
    The Siberian tiger is one of the world's most endangered species.

    China was once home to a large tiger population, but rapid growth and a demand for animal parts has pushed the tiger to the brink of extinction.

    In China's northernmost province of Helonjiang winter temperatures can plunge as low as minus 40C.

    But that is no problem for the biggest cat in the world.

    The Siberian Tiger has roamed the woods and plains here since the ice age.

    Growing up to three metres long and weighing just under half a tonne, the relentless search for food has given Siberian Tigers a reputation as one of nature's most vicious killers.

    At the Helonjiang Tiger Farm, things are somewhat different.

    Noble beasts

    For the tigers bred here a truck makes the daily lunch delivery – six kilograms per tiger each day.

    Tigers raised at the farm get a
    daily ration of six kilograms of beef
    It is a much easier catch than the deer they would normally be hunting in the wild.

    But watching them at feeding time, it is hard not to feel that this most noble of beasts should not be raised on a farm.

    Wang Li Gang, the owner of the farm, says raising the tigers in captivity is a necessity.

    According to the World Wildlife Fund there are fewer than 300 left in the wild.

    If this government-sponsored programme did not exist, Wang says, the Siberian Tiger's chances of survival would be slim.

    "In the wild the small number of Siberian Tigers we've found suggests they're on the brink of extinction," he says.

    As China's cities have ballooned, the forests in which the Siberian Tigers used to roam have been chopped down – turning what used to be the tigers' hunting grounds into the farmland and apartment blocks.


    Tiger habitat is being squeezed by China's
    booming cities and a hunger for land
    In this new urban jungle, the tigers' biggest threat is man.

    Tiger parts are highly prized in China – not just the fur, but also the meat, bones and even the penis are believed to have health benefits.

    As China's economy has boomed, the demand for tiger parts has stoked a booming trade.

    The Chinese government has imposed strict laws on the trade which have won the praise of conservation groups.

    Li Lin, of the WWF in China, told Al Jazeera that the Chinese government has banned all trade in tiger bones.

    "So no tiger bones should be sold inside China."

    At the Helongjiang tiger farm, however, that law is being stretched to the limit.

    In the gift shop, we found more than stuffed toys on sale.


    Demand for tiger products is soaring
    despite a ban on the trade
    The centrepiece is a vat of grain alcohol infused with the skeleton of a whole tiger and bags of body parts.

    The brew is siphoned off and sold to visitors for $70 a bottle.

    The tiger farm's owners say its programmes are more about conservation than commercialism.

    But they say the cost of breeding, feeding and maintaining their cats have to be met somehow.

    That has raised questions about the true benefits of such a controversial means of conservation.

    What seems to be beyond doubt though is that these crouching tigers are paying the price of China's emerging dragon.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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