Nowhere’s safe for the last of our big cats

Posted on 10/07/2019 by Gilbert Sape

There’s a roaring trade in big cats being used for traditional Asian medicine, and it’s clawing its way across the globe

Modern marvels 

Facial transplants, bionic eyes and 3D printed body parts – the medical breakthroughs of recent years are nothing short of dazzling, mind boggling wonders.  

People are living longer, survival rates are higher, and there are cures and remedies for so many illnesses. Modern medicine has given us many gifts, but at the same time, ancient remedies are still popular across Asia.

Traditional medicine 

Plant-based traditional medicine has been used for many years, and will no doubt continue to be used for many more. Many herbal remedies are known to have curative properties and are popular with many communities around the world.  

Having the choice to decide which treatment is right for you can only be a good thing – except when wildlife is involved. 

A huge industry 

It is estimated that the traditional Asian medicine industry is worth upwards of USD$50 to USD$1201 billion globally. Last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO), endorsed the practice of traditional despite a surge of criticism. 

Sadly, some of the traditional practices exploit wild animals, cause immense suffering, and are bringing numerous species to the brink of extinction despite little evidence to support its medicinal properties. 

A tiger product on sale in China

The sinister side of tradition 

Traditional Asian medicine is based on an entirely different concept to modern medicine, and, with about 2,000 years of history, is of immense importance to many people. 

Most remedies don’t contain wild animal products, and often are entirely non-animal based, but there are some that do, and the cost to wildlife is unimaginable: 

  • Bears are locked up in small cages their entire lives, having their bile painfully harvested from surgical openings in their abdomen  
  • The last remaining rhinos are being brutally killed and their horns hacked off  
  • Pangolins being captured and killed for their scales to be sold on the black market 
  • Lions, tigers and other big cats are being poached and even farmed for their bones 

This is completely unnecessary; there are synthetic and plant-based alternatives available for the ailments these products are being consumed for. 

The global threat to big cats 

Big cat numbers have been freefalling into oblivion over the last century. Wild tigers are just shy of 4,000. For lions, there’s about 20,000 left in the wild – down from about 200,000 a century ago.  

Habitat loss, hunting and human wildlife conflicts are the main drivers of these declines, but another threat is the growing market for their body parts. Now that demand is outstripping supply in Asia, it has become a global issue. 

Jaguars in Suriname  

Last year, we revealed that, even thousands of miles away, in the small country of Suriname in South America, jaguars are being poached from the wild for this industry. 

Their carcasses are boiled down into a paste, then smuggled into China in tubs, to supposedly treat the same ailments as tiger products, with a steep price tag attached.  

Read about our Jaguar report below:

A poached jaguar in Suriname

Lions in South Africa 

In South Africa, lion cubs are used for petting and ‘walking with lions’ experiences at tourist venues. When they get too big, they are used for ‘canned hunting’ – where hunters pay large sums of money for a guaranteed kill as the lions are trapped.  

Their bones are then harvested and exported to Asia, which is legal in South Africa. In 2018, South Africa exported 1,500 lion skeletons

Lion cubs huddled together at a facility in South Africa - Traditional medicine - World Animal Protection

Lions huddled in a facility in South Africa - image credit: Blood Lions

Tigers in China 

In China, it’s thought there’s over 6,000 tigers in factory style farms – more than the wild population. They are kept in cramped, barren concrete enclosures, unable to behave naturally, suffering physically and mentally.  

Some are kept in entertainment facilities and forced to perform tricks for tourists, who then drink the tonics and wines made from their ancestors’ bones. This is exploitation and its greediest, and cruellest. 

You can read our latest report on this below:

Lions in a South African farm

Tigers trapped in a breeding facility in China

Big cat farms don’t save wildlife 

There is a misguided belief that big cat farms ease the pressure on wild populations. However, our latest study showed that there is a clear preference for big cat products from wild cats over farmed, with almost nine in ten Vietnamese, and over half of Chinese consumers confirming.   

So, farms are not only cruel and legitimise a practice that should be phased out, but are also fuelling the popularity of these products, and ultimately the poaching of more wild animals.   

An uphill battle 

We are doing all we can to save these animals, but it’s an uphill battle. Consider that 25 years ago, China banned all domestic trade of rhino horns and tiger bones, throwing these incredible animals a much-needed lifeline.  

But at the end of last year, the ban was lifted to allow the use for medical treatment of farmed tiger parts, which would undo years of progress. Although this has been put hold, we’re concerned that it’s a temporary measure.  

Wildlife. Not medicine. 

Regardless of whether they are taken from the rainforests of South America, the plains of Africa, or farmed in China – big cats are wildlife, not medicine.  

For us, our supporters and no doubt, many others, it’s clear that these incredible animals deserve a life worth living and belong in the wild.  

We need to speak up for these animals, who themselves, do not have a voice. We need to move the world to act now and protect these animals, because time is running out. 

Read our latest report – ‘Trading cruelty – how captive big cat farming fuels the traditional Asian medicine industry’ here

Hero image credit: Blood Lions