Tiger Bone Wine



By Brian K. Weirum

Special to the San Francisco Chronicle

November 11, 2007


       Ever wonder what happens to the tigers killed by poachers in India and Nepal? In some cases their bones are steeped in distilled spirits in China to produce an elixir that’s as incomprehensible to Westerners as it is revered by devotees of traditional Chinese medicine: tiger bone wine.

         At a secret factory in China, a reporter for the South China Morning Post this past April found 600 tiger skeletons soaking in alcohol to produce 200,000 bottles of wine.

         “We can’t advertise our tiger wine in Beijing at the moment because the Olympics are coming up,” the sales manager at the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park in Guilin, Xhao Runghui, was quoted in the story as saying. “When the Olympics are over, we will have more freedom to market our wine. Foreigners just don’t understand. Chinese people know that tiger is the best medicine in the world. It cures so many things. It makes you strong. It makes a man more virile.”

        The demand has, according to news reports, prompted Beijing to consider legalizing the trade in tiger parts, which China and other major nations have banned since 1993.

         “The ban is in place but won’t be there forever, given the strong voices from tiger farmers, experts and society,” warned a deputy director at China’s State Forestry Administration in Reuters last June.   

         With its growing affluence, China is by far the world’s largest market for illicit tiger parts. India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, home to most of the world’s remaining wild Royal Bengal tigers, have no tradition of using tiger parts in medicine or religion.

         As the supply of tigers was drying up in the Far East, a poaching crisis emerged in the early 1990s as tigers in the “protected” forests of South Asia were poached to satisfy the beliefs and customs of those thousands of miles away.

         And there’s evidence that the Chinese hunger for tigers goes beyond traditional medicine. At a tiger forum in Kathmandu in April, DNA tests were introduced by the British television network ITN that proved tiger meat was being served at the restaurant that adjoins the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park.         

         The “Tiger Park” is actually a tiger farm: The Chinese raise tigers in pens, as you would cattle or hogs, and there are now more tigers living on these farms than the estimated 3000 remaining in the wild.

         On the surface it seems like a good idea: Grow tigers domestically, so there’s no incentive to kill those in the wild. This is one of the main arguments for dropping the ban on the sale of tiger parts. But this is a specious argument for the following reasons:

         •It’s 10 times cheaper to kill a tiger in India and smuggle its parts to China than to raise one on a farm.

         •The international trade of endangered species -- from tigers and rhinos to birds and butterflies -- is second only to drug trafficking as the biggest source of illicit money worldwide. Wildlife crime syndicates operate all over Asia. The London-based Environmental Investigative Agency issued a report in the Fall of 2009 documenting the astounding increase in market value- tiger skins going for $11,600 to $21,800 and leopard skins going for $1,000 to $2700. Tiger bones are now valued at $800-$1200 per kilo. A full grown tiger would give 5-10 kilos of bone so the range would be $4000 to $12,000. These syndicates will not shut down their business networks and close their bank accounts because farms are breeding tigers in China.

         •There is no way to distinguish between the bones — or the skin, heart or penis — of a wild tiger and those of a farm-raised tiger.

         •Unleashing the market for tiger parts perpetuates a myth. Tiger claws are worn as an amulet for courage and good luck. Eyeballs rolled into pills are believed to cure epilepsy. The tail, when mixed with soup, is thought to cure diseases of the skin. Tiger penis soup is prized as an aphrodisiac. Bones are thought to cure rheumatism and prolong life.

         •There is no medical or scientific proof of the efficacy of tiger medicines, but centuries of beliefs and customs empowered by this myth die hard. To ingest the tiger, it is believed, is to gain some of its mythical strength and powers. To the true believer, therefore, wouldn’t wild tigers always be preferable to farmed tigers?

         Concern over this issue prompted the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), led by India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and the United States, to adopt a resolution in June of 2007 opposing the resumption of trade in tigers and mandated that China phase out their tiger farms.

         Anyone who has ever experienced a tiger in the wild would argue that farming one for medicine could not possibly be God’s intended fate for this magnificent animal. 

         No animal has been graced with a greater aura of power and majesty, both in myth and reality, than the tiger. Ironically, it is this prodigious mantle of respect that is threatening to lead it down an inexorable path to extinction.

         “When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more,” wrote William Beebe, “another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”



Brian K. Weirum

Travelers’ Tales - NEPAL


            The man next to me was flossing his teeth with a blunt, rusty blade which looked like the cutting end of a wine opener. Dirty faced children were clambering over his shoulder to see what was happening in this cramped room. A lone guard stood near me at the door with a rifle languishing at his side, seemingly unconcerned and oblivious to the crowd that was pressing into the room. Across the courtyard another guard stood with his back to an open door. He was holding his rifle at arms length with one hand and reading a magazine held in the other.

         I was in a small room on the second floor of a building which was hard to discern whether it was under construction or seriously falling apart. I suspect a bit of both was true. Rods of steel protruded up from floors to support walls that didn’t exist. There were as many bricks and holes visible as white plaster on the crudely white washed building.

         The room was furnished with a bench, one chair, and a lone desk in the middle. The desk was empty except for two round glass paperweights and a red phone inside a wooden box. Bags of rice and flour lined the floors and hung crudely atop a single filing cabinet.

         Beneath us, inside a central courtyard, scores of men crowded towards the gate to see what was happening in the room above. In a separate enclosure several women were sitting over pots, cooking rice. A lone woman and child were screaming protests in Nepalese. The woman was in jail for poisoning her husband to death and as there was now no one to care for her family her child was consigned to share her fate.

         My shirt was strained dark with sweat which ran down my chest, occasionally fogging my camera and dampening my notepad. The heat was stifling. There was no breeze. Almost, it seemed, no air. It was May and the monsoon rains had not yet come. I was in the jail in Bharatpur, a small town in the Nepalese Terai, a vast expanse of jungle, forests, and farm land along the southern border of Nepal.

         The Terai was once one of the most inhospitable places on earth- being home to the healthiest of malarial mosquitoes. Today it is host to a tenuous relationship between people who have flocked down out of the Himalayan mountains in search of better agricultural land and several large National Parks which have been set aside to preserve and protect a vast array of indigenous wildlife- including the Royal Bengal tiger, the Indian one horned rhinoceros, leopard, gaur, wild elephants, sambar, chital (spotted deer), wild boar, sloth bear, cobra, python, countless other animals and a vast array of bird life.

         How I got into this unlikely scenario is to reveal a look into a deadly game that threatens to rid the jungles and forests of Asia of one of the earth’s most magnificent animals.


                                             *       *       *


         I had driven the length of Royal Chitwan National Park with Chuck McDougal, longtime friend and resident Nepal tiger expert, to meet with Tika Ram Adhikari, Deputy Warden of the park. Tika Ram, a 36 year old wildlife worker from Lamjung in central Nepal, was one of several people putting together a very aggressive anti-poaching effort. Chuck spoke very highly of his dedication and we wanted to hear how his work was progressing.

         Though there are many problems facing the tiger and other endangered species- loss of habitat, population pressure, economic development, and the lack of will of tiger habitat nations- the most immediate threat facing the tiger is poaching to satisfy the market for traditional Chinese medicine.

         We met Tika Ram at his office in Saurah on the Eastern end of Chitwan National Park. It didn't take long for me to see that this man was indeed a very courageous and dedicated individual. His tale depicted a one-sided war but he was undeterred and spoke with almost mischievous glee about his battle with the poaching organizations. In somewhat broken English he told me over lunch.."I don't care about my life. How to catch tiger and rhino poachers at the site- this is my hobby."

         He had a list of 72 suspected individuals who were being monitored by 7 people in his employment. This 'employment' amounted to payment of a small amount of Nepalese rupees to keep tabs on the movements of suspected poachers and traffickers. For example, one man was being paid 500 rupees ($10) a month to watch a fellow named Som Lal Kami who was known to have killed 3 rhinos with spears after snaring them in a trap. There was now a tacit agreement between the Nepal army stationed inside the park and the Warden's office to 'seriously detain' this Mr. Kami if he ever ventured into the park.

         There seemed to be two major smuggling/poaching organizations. One based in Pokhara and one based nearby in Narayanghat. The identity of the ringleaders were known but they were difficult to apprehend. Like everywhere else in the world- bribery, influence peddling, and big money kept those at the top protected.

         Tika Ram told us that he himself was under surveillance by a man who allegedly was employed as a cook in a neighboring tea house at Saurah. He had been sent by the Narayanghat poaching ring to keep tabs on the Warden's activities. So they were both spying on each other in this rather dangerous game. The stakes were high. Bones for a full grown tiger could get up to $1000 US and a rhino horn could command as much as $10,000 US in Kathmandu.

         Rewards had been made commensurate with the profits to be gained. Up to 50,000 rupees were now being offered ($1000) for information leading to the arrest of those involved in the poaching and trafficking of endangered species. Fines and penalties for killing tigers had now been raised to equal that of the rhino. [Rupees 50,000-100,000 ($1,000-$2,000) and 5-15 years in prison].

         After lunch Tika Ram asked us if we wanted to go to the jail in Bharatpur to question two of the arrested poachers. This caught me totally by surprise. Chuck and I caught each other’s eye, and realizing this was too great an opportunity to pass up, off we went in an open landrover.

         En route to the jail we stopped at a narrow dirt lane. Tika Ram pointed out a white two storied house on the edge of the forest north of the main E W highway in Nepal. This was the home of Chij Kumari, a lady known to be the supplier of a poison called 'fikum' which, mixed with DDT., was being used to kill tigers by a new and devious method.

         Villagers who lived on the edge of the park were 'given' free cows and water buffaloes on the understanding that they should allow their animals to stray into the periphery of the Park. If any of their animals were killed by a tiger they to immediately contact a certain person. The carcass of the killed animal would be laced with poison, and the tiger would die when it returned to finish the meal. After a kill, tigers generally drag their larger prey off into the high grass and eat their meals over a period of time. The tiger would then be buried and its bones dug up at a later time and transported via the smuggling circuit to another destination. The villagers could then keep the remaining animals as their own.

         Had we not been anxious to get to the jail, I'm sure Tika Ram would have suggested that we pop on over to her house and ask to talk to her. This was his attitude when talking about all the miscreants in this affair. He had no qualms whatsoever about spontaneously getting 'in the face' of these people to let them know he was on their trail. This, indeed, was how the idea of going to the jail came up.

         Our host during this interview was the head jailer, a Mr. Sharma. He was a handsome man with a cleanly pressed shirt which almost mocked the muggy disarray in which I found myself. He was wearing a colorful ‘topi’- the traditional national hat of Nepal. His attitude varied from bored insouciance to open amusement at some of the questions and answers. The red phone rang a few times and all was still as he briefly conducted his jail business, then, with a polite nod of the head, acknowledged that Tika Ram could continue the interview with a Ram and Rom Bahadur Kami.

         Sita Ram was dressed in thongs, shorts, and a loose fitting multi-colored striped shirt. His hair was closely cropped, slightly graying, and had a drooping mustache which went well with the sneering scowl permanently etched on his face. In an instant I knew that..”He did it!”

         Sita Ram had been caught in a sting operation digging up tiger bones at the Park Headquarters in Kasra Durbar. A tiger had been found dead and it was decided to put the carcass to good use. Via the information network, Sita Ram was approached and asked if he would dig up the bones and get them to an isolated school yard known to be a meeting place for the poaching trade. Throughout the interview, he denied this charge, saying he just happened to be there, but did admit to being involved in three previous incidents of bringing bones up from India to that remote school yard. When confronted with the names of heads of known poaching rings, he admitted only to the existence of the organizations and said he had never heard the names of the leaders. Sita Ram had not been formerly charged for this crime as yet. If convicted he was facing a possible sentence of 15 years in prison and a fine of Rupees 75000 ($1500). He pleaded with Tika Ram for understanding, claiming to have a son that needed his fathership. With primitive plea bargaining, it was suggested that if he provided helpful information about the poaching organization some understanding could be reached. [I’ve been told that he is now out of prison and a paid informant in the anti-poaching war.]

         Rom Bahadur Kami was tall and thin. He wore loose fitting broken sandals, a pair of shorts, and a brown khaki shirt hung over a dirty white undershirt. He, too, wore a colorful Nepalese ‘topi’. Unlike the unpleasant demeanor of Sita Ram, Rom Bahadur carried himself with a dignified air and his face, though stern, occasionally offered a kind smile.

         Rom Bahadur was arrested in a raid on a house where 44 rhino hooves and two horns were confiscated. That represents 11 dead rhinos. Word had been spread through the local village of Bibinagar that a buyer was interested in rhino hooves. A response came back that there, indeed, were rhino hooves available but the buyer must also purchase an expensive and highly prized rhino horn. A deal was cut over several days of negotiating. As the park rangers came into and through the suspected house the scene turned into something out of a Keystone Cop film. People and rhino evidence began flying out windows and doors and holes in the roof. Eight people were arrested in this incident. No conclusive results or hard evidence was obtained in this conversation with Rom Bahadur.

         Two hours later I looked around the room. The novelty of our visit had evidently worn thin. We were alone. No curious and precocious children. No armed guard at the door. I stood near the door and as Rom Bahadur began to glance outside from time to time my paranoia had me wondering if I should try to stop him if he made an attempt to flee across the rice fields into the forest. The guard who had been at our door was now down under the shade of a large banyan tree. His rifle was laying on the ground and he was playing caroms with the young children. The other guard across the way had dropped his magazine and was dangerously close to nodding off on top of bayonet affixed to his rifle. Our visit was now old news. We thanked Mr. Sharma for his hospitality, pulled in behind a bullock cart, and ate dust all the way out to the main highway.


                                             *       *       *

         Tiger Bone Wine is thought by millions of people to be an elixir of life.   To ingest the tiger is to gain its power and vigor. In the 1980’s a factory in Taiwan, an island which has never had an indigenous tiger on its shores, was using 2000 kg. of tiger bones a year to bottle 100,000 bottles of Tiger Bone Wine. That figure accounts for the death of at least 200 tigers. Products from tiger bone are not limited to wine and tonics. Powders, ointments, pills and plasters made from tiger bones are also thought to have medicinal value.

         Ancient beliefs and customs threatening the tiger are not, however, limited to bones. Tiger penis soup is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Eyeballs rolled into pills are thought to cure convulsions. Whiskers are thought to be a protection against bullets. The tail mixed with soap is believed to cure skin disease. The hair when burnt drives away centipedes. Sitting on a tiger skin can prevent fevers caused by evil spirits. Claws worn as a piece of jewelry are said to give courage and protection from sudden fright. And ribs should at all times be carried as a good luck talisman.

         No animal has been graced with a greater aura of power and majesty, both in myth and reality, than the tiger. Ironically it is this prodigious mantle of respect which is threatening to lead it down an inexorable path to extinction.

         With no proven medicinal value, the strong belief in the efficacy of tiger medicines may soon lead to the disappearance, forever, of this magnificent animals from the forests and jungles of Asia.

         The Royal Bengal tiger, found mainly in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan is being vigorously hunted because the Siberian and South China tiger are too scarce to supply the market demand for tiger products. With the recent changes in the former Soviet Union, the magnificent Siberian, or Amur tiger, has been slaughtered at such a pace to almost preclude its survival. Of the original eight sub-species of tigers, three have become extinct in our lifetime and two more may never see the 21st century.

         The once thriving National Parks of India and Nepal have become shopping malls to satisfy illicit markets in Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan. Several renowned tiger reserves in India have suffered catastrophic losses since 1989 and several tiger populations monitored by McDougal in Nepal suffered 40% losses in the years between 1989 and 1991 alone. Tiger bones have been found at the airport in Delhi; tiger cubs were found smuggled through the Bangkok airport; and bags of tiger bones were found at a remote postal office in the Humla district of northwest Nepal. In August of 1996, a Tibetan in the town of Taklakot ( a small town near the base of Mt. Kailas on the remote Nepal-Tibetan border) told me of a man in jail in the Ngari region town of Ali for trying to barter tiger bones for ‘shahtoosh’-the wool from the endangered Tibetan antelope. Nepal clearly lies on the smuggling route of the tiger's path to extinction.


                                             *       *       *


         On the road back to Saurah we stopped briefly to cross a small stream just before entering a massive sal forest. The setting sun was now a massive ball of flames balancing on top of the distant trees. The intensity of the heat had been mercifully tempered by shade and an occasional breeze. A langur monkey was perched above us cradling a small baby in her arms. A spotted deer drank from the stream. Far off on the edge of the forest the Indian Cuckoo was singing its maddeningly repetitious yet melodious refrain. All was becoming very still. The jungle was preparing for the night.

         I asked Tika Ram why he was so dedicated to this often dangerous and thankless work. My question seemed to surprise him and he was quiet for a moment. His arm then swept across the horizon gesturing to the smooth flowing Rapti River; the 20 foot high green and golden brown elephant grass; the dense riverine sal forest; and on to the massive white snows of the Annapurna Himal in the distance. "The grasses and forest cover burn and are reborn every year,” he said. “I never feel like this is an old area. I am always excited when I see the park as it is always changing. If we don't do something and the tiger and rhino are forever gone from our forests- then what is the meaning of this beautiful place?"