In A Nutshell
Despite a complete ban on trade in anything made from the big cats, China has a vibrant trade in wine and spirits made using tiger bones. The tiger parts are soaked in the liquid for a period of time, and the resulting liquid is sold for hundreds of dollars per bottle. In some secret auctions, the more expensive crates can go for over $30,000. The trade is supplied by tiger farms, and there are currently around 5,000 tigers being kept in captivity for this reason. The farms are officially tourist attractions, but the big cats end up being slaughtered, with their meat sold as food and their bones going to the drinks trade.
The Whole Bushel
Tigers are extremely endangered. Estimates for the number in the wild range from around 3,500 to 4,700. The number in captivity in China is around 5,000. That would be great if they were there for their own good. Unfortunately, many are simply bred to feed the lucrative demand for tiger bone wine, which is exactly what it sounds like. The bones of dead tigers are soaked in wine and sold as medicine. One animal park, Xiongsen Bear & Tiger Zoo, was found to be serving tiger meat as a snack and dropping the rest of the body into vats of wine.
Traditional Chinese medicine recommends the brew for a number of ailments. Arthritis and bone problems have an obvious superficial link. There are also the typical symptoms of life (like chills and fatigue) that are easy prey for sellers of snake oil.
The wine can sell for over $800 per bottle. For comparison, the average income of a family in China was $2,100 in 2012. The country’s wealthy middle-class patrons are the target: They attend auctions where crates of the drink are sold for over $30,000.
The whole thing is extremely illegal. All sales of tiger products were banned in China in 1993. Even selling products created before the ban came into place is against the law. London-based organization Environmental Investigation Agency is among the groups putting pressure on officials to stop the auctions.
They seem to be having some success. When a Guardian journalist showed up to an auction where tiger wine was supposed to be sold, he reminded them how they shouldn’t be doing it and alerted the authorities. Figuring that they’d been busted, the auction removed the products from those available that day. One disappointed customer commented that “it’s really good stuff, but I haven’t been able to buy any for a long time.”