South Africa is one the world’s biggest exporters of endangered tigers, almost all of which end up as floor mats, wall hangings or skeletons submerged in vats of Asian tiger-bone wine. The trade is so lucrative that city householders in Gauteng are breeding them in their backyards.
Words by Don Pinnock
Because they’re not an indigenous species, trade in tigers is unregulated and flying below the radar of the DEA (Department of Environmental Affairs). When asked about it by Ban Animal Trading and the EMS Foundation, the DEA response was that tigers weren’t the department’s responsibility because they’re “exotics”. In reply to a request for information on tiger breeding facilities, Limpopo DEA wildlife director Sam Makhubele said the department had never been approached and he seemed surprised that they even existed.
However, 2015 a TRAFFIC/Wildcru report, Bones of Contention, estimated there were at the time 280 tigers in 44 facilities in South Africa. Today there are undoubtedly far more, but because tiger breeding doesn’t have to be reported, numbers are hard to establish.
A shock report by Ban Animal Trading and the EMS Foundation – sent to the UN wildlife trade organisation CITES – lists over 60 unlicensed tiger breeders, many of which market Bengal and Siberian tiger cubs, skins and bones worldwide. The report says South Africa’s lax and unregulated approach is contributing directly to the demise of tigers and the growth of the tiger bone industry. It notes that inbreeding is rampant and conditions under which many tigers are kept cruel and market-driven.
“South Africa’s management practices and controls are totally inadequate for such facilities,” it says, “and as a consequence there is nothing to prevent Asian big cats from entering illegal trade from or through the breeding and keeping facilities”.
When tigers cubs are too old to be used in petting parks, their primary value is their skins and bones. The meat of the animal at one facility, according to a researcher, was being offered at a tiger braai.
An irony at the heart of the tiger bone trade is that, in Asia, lion bones are being used in fake tiger bone wine, while in South Africa tiger bones are being faked as lion bones because the DEA has licensed lion bone export.
Tigers from South African breeding farms – particularly cubs taken from their mothers – are being exported to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Trinidad, Tobago, the United States, China, Egypt, Pakistan and Tanzania. Many of these farms are also hunting outfits and sell adult tigers to other hunting facilities and known exporters of animal bones. Additional revenue is from tourist cub petting.
The boom in tiger breeding is a marketing response to the demise of tigers in their home ranges. At the turn of the 20th century around 100,000 tigers roamed Asia. Today they’re scattered across just 7% of their former range, often in small “island” populations where isolation puts them at risk of becoming inbred and imperils their long-term survival.
Today about 2,633 Bengal tigers live in Nepal, Bhutan and India. The remainder – 1,257 tigers – are split among the other four subspecies: Siberian, Indochinese, Malay, and Sumatran. These subspecies are almost extinct.
The greatest threat is poaching. In the past seven years the cats have been hunted out of 40 percent of their range. As a result of these declines, the demand for tiger parts is sky rocketing.
“In China an estimated 6,000 tigers live on farms, waiting to be turned into rugs, tiger-bone wine and high-status entrées. That demand means that every wild tiger has a price on its head.”
Tiger breeding and export in South Africa appears to violate the country’s commitment to CITES regulations. If tigers are being bred for international trade in establishments without accreditation, it’s in violation of CITES Resolution Conf. 12.10, which requires registration of Appendix I breeding facilities operating for commercial purposes. There’s also CITES Decision 14.69, which requires such facilities to ‘implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to conserving wild tigers; tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives’.
And Resolution Conf. 12.5 (Rev. CoP16) urges “Parties and non-Parties on whose territories tigers and other Asian big cat species are bred in captivity to ensure that adequate management practices and controls are in place to prevent parts and derivatives from entering illegal trade from or through such facilities”.
Tiger breeding began in South Africa in about 2000 when wildlife videotographer John Varty opened Tiger Canyons near Philappolis in the Free State and imported several cats as a rewilding project. Varty’s partners, Li Quan and Stuart Bray of the NGO Save China’s Tigers, broke with him following a court case in which they accused Varty of misusing the funds they donated in the making of a film, Living with Tigers. They opened the Laohu Valley Reserve nearby as a South China tiger rewilding project, but no cats are known to have been rewilded to their homeland.
In 2008 the NSPCA filed a case in the Supreme Court against Laohi Valley of cruelty to animals released into tiger enclosures to be hunted. The case was not upheld. At both centres people have been killed by big cats and in 2012 Varty was badly mauled by a tiger.
The report by Ban Animal Trading and EMS found 64 South African facilities in all provinces plus a number of backyarders in Gauteng breeding or housing tigers. Almost none were registered as CITES breeding facilities.
According to the report one facility, Mystic Monkeys and Feathers in Limpopo, appears to be a huge breeding facility for tigers, given the fact that they can export more than 15 tiger cubs at once and then still have tiger cubs available for petting at the zoo. Another facility, Mbidi Lodge in Limpopo, while not registered as a breeding facility, was found to often have tiger cubs which disappeared after a few months.
In a number of facilities, says the report, there have been media reports of suspected illicit trading. Voi Lodge – DKC Trading owned by Michael Chu, had more than 50 tigers and has been linked to criminal syndicates in Vietnam.
Leopard breeding outfit Letsatsi la Africa has been publicly linked by Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa to wildlife smuggling by the the Laos-based Xaysavang Network. The network was described by former US Secretary of State John Kerry as one “of the most prolific international wildlife trafficking syndicates in operation”.
Despite welfare issues, cruelty, illegality and violation of conservation principles, South Africa has turned a blind eye to tiger farming. According to the NSPCA, owning a pet tiger is legal in Gauteng and animal welfare groups can do nothing about it.
“Under the Animal Protection Act and the by-laws, we have no grounds to confiscate,” Boksburg SPCA Maggie Mudd told The Citizen newspaper.
“It doesn’t make sense that I need a permit to keep a tortoise but I can keep a tiger.”