From an old cardboard box, Li Wen drew a clear glass bottle filled with a dark brown liquid. The yellowed label indicated that it was brewed decades ago.
“I have newer batches too,” Li said in a voice stained by caffeine and nicotine, “and I’m also making my own.” Several steps away, like a stage magician, he lifted a black cloth for the grand reveal: a glass carboy, about five gallons in volume, filled nearly to the brim with a spirit that was lighter in shade than the aged elixirs on display. At the bottom was unmistakably a bone. “Tiger, too, of course.”
Li has a small collection of tiger bone wine. His hobby of buying and selling the stuff led him to experiment with tincturing. His recipe for the spirit is simple: add a tiger bone to rice wine, steep for 50 days. The traditional process is much more complex: tiger bones were also brewed with a multitude of other ingredients like antelope horn, red sage, and dried ginger.
Tigers have it rough in China. In 1959, as part of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong waged a public campaign in an attempt to eradicate the South China Tiger, as he considered the species “an enemy of man.” More recently, at a CITES meeting held in Geneva—CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—a Chinese delegate said, “We don’t ban trade in tiger skins but we do ban trade in tiger bones.” It was the first time that a Chinese public official acknowledged the existence of the tiger pelt trade within the country. The official ban on tiger bone sales has been in place since 1993—but why does the Chinese government see a difference between killing endangered animals for their skins and killing them for their bones?
Last year, the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) took a closer look at the tiger trade in China. EIA found that some companies are issued licenses to breed endangered animals, including the South China Tiger. A notification issued to those businesses by the Chinese government in 2005 enabled “the pilot use of captive-bred tiger bone for medicine.” In fact, traditional Chinese medicine outlines the uses for each component of a tiger, down to its nose leather and whiskers.
The 2005 notification reenergized the tiger bone wine industry, and the drink was revived as an indulgence for the elite, marketed by distributors directly to top-dollar clients and rarely stocked in stores. Those who have invested in tiger bone wine production justify what they do by citing a loophole: They’re not actually selling tiger bones.
Given the Chinese delegate’s slip of tongue at the recent CITES meeting, EIA’s 2013 report is chillingly prescient and states that “a failure to act indicates an implicit endorsement of a legal trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers, and the beginning of a slippery slope towards accepting a legal trade in the bones of captive-bred tigers.”
Fans of the drink believe that it can boost qi, improve circulation, cure arthritis, and strengthen the body in general. Like blood ivory, some see it as a status symbol due to its perceived prestige and ballooned financial value. Others are drawn to it because of the sense of dominance they think the drink provides. “If I ever had to face that thing,” Li Wen said as he pointed to the tiger bone steeping in his vat of rice wine, “it would kill me. But now it’s in a jar, like I tamed it.” He believes that consuming the spirit on a regular basis gives him the strength of a tiger and the senses of a predator. “I’m a better businessman because of it.”
As recently as 2011, large public auctions that included tiger bone wine in the lots still took place. At times, the events were even advertised on state television stations. As conservation groups publicly condemned the auctions, the trade moved online—still blatant, still brazen, but less of a frontal assault on reasonable senses. There is a channel for lovers of tiger bone wine on Baidu Tieba—a forum operated by Baidu, China’s most popular Internet search engine. It has a small following, but sporadic posts appear on more popular channels for liquor lovers, and peer-to-peer auction sites routinely host listings as well.
Following the shift, the middleman has been removed and tiger bone wine now goes directly from the hands of its owner to the hands of the buyer. At first glance, one might think that the move to social media makes the sale of tiger wine more difficult to track. But China has significant Internet censorship capabilities, and no efforts have been made to block auction listings for tiger bone wine, contradicting the 1993 ban.
Li Wen didn’t offer me a drink, but he did let me smell one of his recent acquisitions. It was bottled in the 1980s, and he bought the half-liter bottle for ¥34,000, or about $5,470. One-third of it was gone because he had been nursing from it every day. When he unplugged the bottle, the aroma reminded me of the herbal rubs that Chinese chiropractors use to quicken the healing of bruises—rich, earthy, high in alcohol content but without the burn. “Pre-’90s,” he pointed out. But in his carboy was a fresh tiger bone, acquired recently. “It’s from a tiger feast. The cook saved me a leg bone.” I pointed out that his concoction was missing a few ingredients. “That’s fine,” he said. “It’s only the tiger that I want.”