Beijing Olympics 2008

For $235, the cow was dumped from a truck to meet her fate. The tigers attacked within seconds, ineptly tearing her flesh as she struggled to survive. While a wild tiger would have dispatched the cow quickly, these captive tigers had become accustomed to being fed by humans and had lost their predatory skills. Beyond the din of shutterbugs snapping pictures of the bloodbath, reactions to this spectacle of cruelty ranged from clapping by those thrilled by the gore to shock from those sickened by the torture inflicted on the defenseless cow. Eventually, the cow was relieved of her suffering. For the next group of tourists, the carnage would begin anew, perhaps with a less expensive chicken, duck or sheep.

Such scenes of suffering may have been common in the days of the Roman Empire, but this particular David vs. Goliath battle was set in modern-day China. In fact, it was just one of many alarming episodes described in recently published newspaper articles about China's tiger farms. Some 5,000 tigers now live on these farms, and business is booming. While a few tigers entertain farm visitors by attacking helpless animals, their fate is ultimately the same as their brethren, who are crammed three or more to a cage with nothing to do but eat, drink, sleep and pace endlessly. These tigers eventually die or are killed to satisfy China's black market for tiger skins, meat, bones and other body parts, many of which are used in traditional medicines. Portions of some carcasses are placed in large vats of rice wine for up to nine years, producing a "tiger wine" that is believed to cure arthritis, strengthen bones and have other medicinal values. Other parts are stored by farm owners who hope for a resumption of the lucrative legal trade in tiger parts.

While tiger populations on these farms are increasing, the number of tigers in the wild continues to decline. Today, there are likely fewer than 3,500 wild tigers left, including only 20 estimated to remain in China and 450 in Russia's Far East. The remainder is scattered sparsely across India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. As burgeoning human populations continue to encroach upon tiger habitats, the animals are being driven out of their homes and increasingly coming into conflict with humans—with fatal consequences for both. When combined with illegal hunting and trade to satisfy the demand for tiger parts, it is no wonder that all of the remaining tiger species sit on the precipice of extinction.

The tiger's future may be under even more threat if China's tiger farmers succeed in their efforts to convince the Chinese government to allow the legal trade in tiger parts to resume. The farmers claim that supplying the demand for tiger parts from farmed tigers will reduce the pressure on wild tigers. While simple in its logic, this concept is grossly flawed. If implemented, it will lead to unspeakable cruelty against captive tigers and the extinction of those remaining in the wild. Legalizing the trade will escalate the demand as the market expands and will significantly complicate law enforcement efforts by allowing wild tiger parts to be laundered as coming from farmed animals.

To its credit, China did ban the domestic trade in tiger parts in 1993. This decision, when paired with the species' Appendix I listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), shut down the legal trade in tiger parts and reduced the market for traditional medicines containing tiger parts. The illegal trade in tiger parts, however, has continued to impact wild tigers and is a product of the apathy of range states to the plight of the tiger, their failure to protect tiger habitat, and underfunded and lackluster law enforcement efforts to stop illegal poaching and trade. The smuggling of tiger parts into China is ongoing; boxes of parts are mislabeled as legal products such as toilets to avoid detection at the border.

Captive tigers are not the panacea to this predicament, since their questionable genetic lineage and lack of survival skills make them unacceptable for release. A commitment from the countries of the world to fund and support expanded law enforcement efforts and educational campaigns throughout Asia is needed to stop the demand for tiger products and to capture and imprison tiger poachers. At this summer's CITES Conference of the Parties, the international community will debate the issue. If wild tigers are to persist, member countries must forcefully oppose any resumption in the trade of the animals' parts.