Why Do Chinese Oligarchs Secretly Love Illegal Tiger Meat?
A forbidden practice becomes popular among China’s ruling class: watching the animals die before eating them.
China’s wealthy “dragons” like to dine on tigers. In fact, they’ll even watch them die first and then boast about it on social media. Unfortunately, police don’t consider this behavior worth “liking” and so it became the center of a scandal last week when authorities busted an illegal tiger-eating dinner club in Guangdong province.
According to a March 26 report in the state-run regional newspaper the Nanfang Daily, police crashed the party of wealthy businessmen and government officials in the city of Leizhou just as they prepared to nibble on a freshly slaughtered cat. The raid occurred after a drunken dinner guest accidentally posted several grisly pictures of the event on social media, the Nanfang Daily reported.
The story has shone a light on the practice of killing the endangered animals for use in Chinese medicine and for sale to the country’s nouveaux riche, who prize tiger products as both a status symbol and a smart investment.
The Taiwanese press first wrote about such dinners in January of this year following a similar incident, when pictures of a freshly butchered tiger appeared on a Chinese micro-blogging service. At the time, authorities in Leizhou denied the reports, asserting that the newspaper had been the victim of a hoax.
But the existence of underground markets selling tiger in Guangdong has long been an open secret. In 2007, according to the state-run paper the People’s Daily, authorities stopped a truck smuggling tigers into the province, saving at least three of the animals. In 2010, police discovered tiger fur and bones in a truck.
The Nanfang Daily’s article claims that the feasts serve as both entertainment and an ostentatious display of wealth for the Chinese elite who want to impress their connections and clients.
In China, tigers are considered symbols of courage, bravery, and strength. Traditional Chinese doctors prescribe tiger bones, eyeballs, and other parts to treat a variety of ailments ranging from poor eyesight to impotence. “Tiger Feasts” are allegedly quite popular amongst corrupt government officials and elite businessmen who believe consuming the big cats improves performance across a wide range of activities from the boardroom to the bedroom.
According to Chinese media reports, smugglers deliver the tranquilized animals by truck to secret locations where the party’s hosts invite their customers and friends for an impromptu dinner theater.
Organizers hire professional butchers, who receive around $170 per appearance, to slaughter the animal for the diners’ delectation, before carefully chopping up and packaging its remains for sale on the black market. One veteran tiger butcher, who was turned into the authorities, was reported to have killed more than ten tigers since 2007. In a particularly dramatic denouement, the butcher presiding over the busted party at Leizhou died after jumping out of a window in an attempt to evade arrest, according to the Nanfang Daily.
A Nanfang Television news report posted on Chinese web portal Sina, includes a 2012 video showing one such butcher repeatedly electrocuting a tiger. The animal falls to the floor of its tiny steel cage, where it lies twitching. Several men then butcher the carcass on top of a blue tarp.
According to sources in Japan with knowledge of the events, after revelers watch the tiger die, they indulge in a feast including such delicacies as tiger steak and ginger-infused tiger penis soup.
It is believed that smugglers bring some of the tigers into Guangdong from Vietnam, though it’s also possible that some of the tigers are domestically raised.
Wild tigers are rare in China, with some varieties now believed to be extinct. What was thought to be the last wild Indochinese tiger in China was killed and eaten by a man who was sentenced to 12 years in jail in 2009.
While eating endangered animals may be in bad taste, as it were, it’s not always illegal. China’s State Council banned the production and use of traditional Chinese medicine containing tiger bones in 1993, but it is legal to breed the animals, and at least 150 companies have received authorization from China’s Forestry Administration to sell the parts, including skins, of tigers that die in captivity, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Tiger farms” in several parts of the country raise the animals and display them to eager tourists. At the moment it’s estimated there are several thousand tigers being raised in captivity. But the animals are not supposed to be slaughtered for the dinner table.
Although tiger-derived merchandise must be accompanied with a certificate from the agency, merchants routinely use forged documents and legal loopholes to “launder” wild tiger parts and sell them on the open market. A report in the Daily Mail says that authorities wink at the practice and may even take a cut of the illegal trade. Even government officials sometimes receive tiger products as presents. Since China's President Xi Jin Ping took office in 2013, the country has begun a crackdown on such office "perks," which have provoked an outrage among Chinese citizens for years. The resulting slowdown in sales has led to a cooling effect on China’s demand for luxury watches, expensive liquor, and other products associated with the high life. And yet, the market for tiger parts is doing “grrreat.”
Tiger bones routinely sell for a thousand dollars per jin, a Chinese unit of weight just over one pound. Liquor made by soaking tiger bones in Chinese wine brings hefty prices on online exchanges. On Sunday, the site Jiutouwang (Wine Investor’s Network) listed a 500 ml bottle of tiger bone wine for 100,000 RMB or about $16,000 USD.
Ren Yabuki, Executive Director of the NGO Life Investigation Agency (Tokyo, Japan), which researches and campaigns against increasingly serious illegal wildlife trade and animal cruelty, notes that, “There are currently estimated to be 50 wild tigers left in China; it’s probably only a matter of time before they are all extinct. The area where the tigers are being eaten has a long cultural history of feasting on exotic creatures, thus the moral hurdle is probably low. In recent years, as China’s wealthy class have grown, people keep seeking ways to assert their superiority via their wealth, and paying large amounts of money to dine on endangered species is one way this is done. It’s greed expressed as appetite.” Yabuki also notes that as tigers go extinct throughout the world, China sees raising them as a good business opportunity.
On the other hand, state controlled media reports on the illegal “tiger feasts” emphasized their decadence and disregard for the rule of law, suggesting that the bust may be part of a broader crackdown on vice in Guangdong. In a separate incident in mid-February, police drew massive criticism after rounding up hundreds of sex workers in the province’s capital. Picking on the tiger butchers is more likely to gain public support.
Benjamin Dooley contributed to this report.