People Are Farming Tigers For This Bizarre Wine

The cubs are torn from their moms at just a few days old 💔

Inside a small metal cell, a tiger lies nearly motionless on a filthy concrete floor.

Another cat paces back and forth past her, covering each edge of the space with an obsessive focus. There’s nothing to climb and no room to run — so it’s all the animals can do to make the time pass by.

The light has all but left their eyes.

They don’t know it yet, but their days are numbered. Soon, they’ll be killed to become a decorative rug or someone’s dinner.

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A caged tiger at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos | Environmental Investigation Agency/Education For Nature Vietnam

Across Asia, this is the sinister reality for thousands of tigers kept in what appear, on the outside, to be zoos. They’re actually farms, where tigers are bred and kept in small cages until they’re slaughtered. Their bones are broiled and turned into “tiger wine”; their stunning furs turned into pelts or stretched into roaring stuffed tigers; and their flesh sauteed and served up at restaurants.

It’s an industry that has seen a booming demand in the past decade in countries like China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, where these “luxury” goods are produced and sold to buyers. It’s turned endangered animals into a commodity — and is part of the reason why there are more tigers in captivity than the meager 3,900 left in the wild worldwide.

Debbie Banks, campaign manager of tigers and wildlife crime for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has been studying this quickly-expanding trade for years. In 2014, she traveled to a tiger product hotspot: the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, a landlocked country between China and Thailand.

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A collection of tiger skins for sale at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos | Environmental Investigation Agency/Education For Nature Vietnam

The enclave, simply put, is a lawless playground of illicit gambling and duty-free shopping — but it’s also a nightmare for animals.

“We saw all sorts of different wildlife parts and products being sold there out in the open,” Banks told The Dodo. “There were booths selling tiger skins, stuffed tigers, rhino horn shavings, ivory and pangolin scales. Restaurants openly advertised tiger and pangolin dishes.”

And down the path from the restaurants are rows of tiny holding pens, filled with tigers.

These tigers, in Laos as in other Asian countries, are born and killed in captivity. But it’s putting wild populations at risk, too.

A sign openly advertising tiger meat at a restaurant at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone | Environmental Investigation Agency/Education For Nature Vietnam

“Proponents argue that tiger farms help wild populations of tigers, as it takes the pressure off wild tiger populations,” Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told The Dodo. “This is not correct, of course. Farmed products aren’t always sold as farmed. They are sometimes sold as wild, which perpetuates the problem of poaching, and demand for wild products.”

While the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos only holds around 30 live tigers at a time, WWF estimates there are hundreds of the animals being kept captive across Laos alone for the purpose of being turned into wildlife products. Farms in Asia often disguise themselves as private zoos or animal clinics, when the facilities’ true intent is to kill the endangered animals.

“It’s very difficult to tell [how many tigers are killed each year] given that there are so many unregistered tigers in farms or private zoos, many of whom will be killed and harvested for their bones and organs,” Henry said.

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A captive tiger in an outdoor enclosure | Environmental Investigation Agency/Education For Nature Vietnam

Inside the farms themselves, the facilities look like traditional, cramped factory farms. Rows upon rows of small pens house up to three tigers each and provide no enrichment. The tigers are killed at 2 or 3 years of age, once they reach full-grown weight.

“They are usually killed by electrocution, an overdose of lethal drugs, strangulation (by putting a noose around the neck) or a combination,” a source close to the Laos farming industry told The Dodo. The source wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

The animals’ lives on the farms, from the moment they’re born to when they’re slaughtered, are despondent.

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A tiger farm facility in China | International Fund for Animal Welfare

“Cubs are removed from the mother after a few days old and hand-reared,” the source said. “This way, the [mother] tiger can be introduced to another male so that she can produce more cubs.”

Some of these facilities, particularly in Thailand, offer up-close and personal interactions with the cubs and adult tigers, who are often drugged, with the promise that the funds support tiger conservation. Unsuspecting tourists who seek out “tiger selfies” are very likely supporting tiger slaughter in the process, Banks said.

This issue took center stage two years ago when investigators raided the infamous Tiger Temple, a claimed wildlife sanctuary and popular tourist spot in Thailand that was accused of secretly farming its tigers for sale on the black market. Officials discovered the bodies of 40 tiger cubs inside freezers on the property, in addition to several tiger skins and fangs and amulets made from tiger parts.

A young tiger on a leash at Thailand's Tiger Temple | Flickr/Juame Escofet

A slaughterhouse and holding facility was also later connected to the temple during the investigation.

The facility was supposed to surrender its animals and close, but since then a zoo license has been issued to an offshoot entity and it’s still operating today. Wildlife advocates have seen similar counteractive responses by the government to the Golden Triangle facility in Laos — a sign that the wildlife crimes are simply not taken seriously.  

“We wanted to bring a lot of attention to the problem with our visit and subsequent report,” Banks said. “The government did respond, but it was a very superficial effort. They brought national news cameras and filmed agents setting fire to tiger skins and boxes that were used to pack tiger paw wine, but no one was arrested or prosecuted ... Laos has become a safe space for Chinese traders and buyers to do their business. And the live tigers are still there.”

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Tigers inside rows of cages at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone | Environmental Investigation Agency/Education For Nature Vietnam

With so many tigers trapped in farms across Asia — and no cease of demand for their products in sight — advocates are met with challenges. The first step toward helping the tigers escape the trade, Banks said, is working with government officials to stop captive breeding.

“The governments of these countries really do not have a handle on what’s happening,” Banks said. “These animals are disappearing, unaccounted for. You won’t be able to shut places down overnight. The governments have to show they’re committed and the first thing they can do is put a stop to captive breeding. There are ways to do this — but they haven’t tried.”

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Smuggled tiger, leopard and zebra skins seized from a passenger at Heathrow Airport in London, England | World Wildlife Fund

Another challenge to eventual farm shutdowns will be finding safe, reputable sanctuaries for the thousands of tigers to retire into.

“Most have been in captivity for so long that they can no longer survive in the wild, nor can [they] be released into the wild due to their unknown and probably mixed genetic heritage and disease-transmission potential,” Henry said. “They will need human care for the rest of their lives.”

Vietnam faced a similar issue in 2002 when it banned the farming of bears for their bile. Rescue groups like Animals Asia have managed to rescue some of the animals, but hundreds still languish in their barren cages in the care of their owners.

While Laos has announced it hopes to pursue a phase-out plan for its tiger farms, the fate of the captive tigers in other countries is even more uncertain — especially in China, where tigers are functionally extinct in the wild but thousands exist in captive farms.

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Caged tigers at a farm in China | Save the Tiger Fund/Panthera

At the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade this October, Banks is hopeful that the EIA will further push China, Vietnam and Thailand to follow Laos’ intention to phase out tiger farms.

Until then, the group urges the general public to stay informed, too.

“The biggest thing people at home can do is to not go to facilities where you can handle tigers and other big cats,” Baks said. “The people running these facilities are not responsible, and as we saw with the Tiger Temple, more often there’s something far worse going on.”

There are fewer than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, and many are being poached so their parts can be used in traditional medicine. Project C.A.T. is working to protect tigers for years to come by supporting nearly 2 million acres of protected habitat — part of a global effort to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. Find out how you can help here.