Animal farms that fuel illegal trade

Rachel Nuwer looks at the effectiveness of the measures put in place to curb illegal farming and trading of endangered animals in Southeast Asian coun

Animal farms that fuel illegal trade

The tiger paced back and forth in its cage, groaning mournfully. A second big cat slept soundly in the corner, while a third stared blankly at the bars. Next to this cage was another containing three more tigers, and after that three more cages: a line of small pens, each holding at least one cat.

The tigers were property of the Kings Romans Group, which operates a casino here, along with hotels, a shooting range, a cockfighting and bullfighting ring, a Chinatown-themed shopping centre, and this zoo. Ten years ago, the Hong Kong-based company signed a lease with the Laotian government to develop this 12-square-mile plot in northwestern Bokeo province, just across the Mekong River from Thailand. It’s called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.

Conservationists maintain that this zoo is actually a farm raising animals for slaughter, and that it plays a significant role in perpetuating the illegal wildlife trade, swapping tigers with similar operations in Thailand and illegally butchering animals for their bones, meat and parts. Tigers, bears, snakes and countless other species, many endangered, are held on farms throughout Southeast Asia. Operators illegally capture animals in the wild and then pass them off as captive-bred, or breed the animals on site and illegally sell them into the trade.

These facilities are part of a contraband industry whose profitability by some estimates is surpassed only by the global trade in drugs and arms, and by human trafficking. In 2015, Debbie Banks and her colleagues, of the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency in London, along with the nonprofit group Education for Nature-Vietnam, reported that meals, medicine and jewellery made from numerous protected species — including tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses, bears and elephants — were openly sold in the special economic zone. Approximately 700 tigers live on farms in Laos.

Thousands more are believed to be kept throughout Southeast Asia, and an additional 5,000 to 6,000 are housed in over 200 breeding centres in China. Fewer than 4,000 of the big cats remain in the wild; farmed tigers now far outnumber total wild populations.

At an international conference on the endangered species trade recently, Laotian government officials acknowledged a growing problem with wildlife farms and committed themselves to closing down the country’s tiger farms. According to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty to which China and all Southeast Asian nations are signers, tigers are to be bred only for conservation. In Laos and several other Asian countries, however, conservationists have compiled ample evidence that many zoos and farms serve as fronts for commercial breeding.

Not just tigers
Though tigers are the most contentious of Asia’s farmed wildlife, they are by no means the only species caught up in the industry. An estimated 10,000 bears are legally kept on Chinese farms for their bile, an ingredient in traditional medicine that is collected through a tube permanently implanted in the animals’ gall bladders, or through a hole in their abdomens. Countless other species — crocodiles, porcupines, pythons, deer and more — are also farmed throughout China and Southeast Asia. Some proponents, including government officials, believe that such facilities should be legal and encouraged, arguing that they relieve pressure to hunt wild animals by satiating demand with captive-bred animals.

Others say there is no evidence to back this assertion. “I can’t think of any species in Southeast Asia that benefits from commercial captive breeding,” said Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia regional director for Traffic, a nonprofit wildlife trade-monitoring group. Scott Roberton, the director of counter-wildlife trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia programme, added that the risks associated with legalising trade in farmed tigers and other endangered species are the same as those associated for decades with the ivory trade. “Legal trade stimulates demand, confuses law enforcement efforts, and opens a huge opportunity for laundering illegal products, which is why ivory markets are now being closed globally,” he said. “There just isn’t the capacity within these countries to manage a legal trade in a watertight way,” Scott said.

‘Laundering’ of animals as farmed that were actually caught in the wild is a frequent practice. In Chengdu, China, one-third of 285 bears rescued from bile farms and now living at a rehabilitation centre run by Animals Asia, a nonprofit group, are missing limbs, a sign that they were caught in the wild by snares. A 2008 investigation by Vietnamese officials and the Wildlife Conservation Society found that about half of 78 wildlife farms surveyed regularly launder animals caught in the wild. In 2016, a study of 26 Vietnamese wildlife farms found that all engaged in laundering. The pet trade is also a problem. Indonesia annually exports over 4 million reptiles and small mammals labelled captive-bred — including thousands shipped weekly to the United States. But virtually all are caught in the wild, according to Chris.

Though modern wildlife farming emerged in the 1990s and has only grown in popularity, wild populations of farmed species have continued to plummet, Chris said. Tigers are effectively extinct in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, while just seven to 50 remain in the wild in China. “No matter how many tigers are farmed, we still have wild tigers getting killed,” he said.

Taking responsibility of wildlife
Heeding these arguments, Laotian government representatives attending a major CITES meeting last September announced their intention to end tiger farming in their country. Even if the authorities move forward with shutting down the farms, what to do with the country’s 700-plus captive tigers is a challenge. Euthanising them would bring unwanted media attention, but releasing them into the wild is not an option. There’s not much prey, and the tigers lack survival skills and have no fear of humans. Yet keeping them is a burden; it costs thousands of dollars a year to feed a single tiger, Debbie said, and tigers can live up to 20 years. In 2002, Vietnam faced a similar dilemma when it made bear farming and bile sales illegal. Fifteen years later, around 1,200 bears still live with their original owners.

Many are kept in horrific conditions — in cages scarcely larger than their bodies, suffering from rampant disease and lacking adequate food and water — and their bile continues to be collected illegally. Animals Asia runs a rehabilitation centre near Hanoi that houses 160 bears rescued from the trade, but the centre has permission to keep only 200 animals. Even if that cap were eliminated, however, the group lacks the funds and space to care for all of Vietnam’s remaining captive bears. “Obviously, we can’t do this all ourselves,” said Tuan Bendixsen, Animals Asia’s Vietnam director. “The government must take responsibility for their wildlife.”

Conservationists believe that international pressure may be crucial to persuading Asian governments to close tiger, bear and other wildlife farms, but that strategy’s effectiveness is compromised by an awkward fact: an estimated 5,000 tigers are held in backyards, petting zoos and even truck stops across the United States.

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