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PROJECT UPDATE: Expose of SIN CITY forces change

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Skins for sale in ‘Sin City’ (EIA)

DSWF’s TigerTime Campaign has been at the forefront of spreading the word about how the unregulated tiger farms of China, and the licensed trade in the skins of captive bred tigers is stimulating demand among the rich and powerful.

In October, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the USA and the UK and met with President Obama and David Cameron. This presented a great opportunity for world leaders to highlight the scourge of tiger farming and the threat it poses to the world’s remaining tigers.

A joint letter to both leaders signed by 18 tiger groups including TigerTime, DSWF and EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) received good press coverage and while Obama and Xi took hugely positive steps toward ending the ivory trade, there were no signs that Xi will order the destruction of stockpiles of tiger parts held by private breeders, that he will oversee the phasing out of tiger farms or that the law will be amended so as to place a higher value on live wild tigers vs the parts and products of dead ones.

With TigerTime support, EIA has played its part in collating, translating and circulating information on tiger farming and trade.

The agri-business approach to the world’s favourite animal is not confined within China’s borders however and the tiger farming model in particular has been exported to neighbouring Laos PDR.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, EIA and Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), undertook a series of investigations into the availability of tiger parts and products, and other smuggled wildlife at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone
(GT SEZ), in Bokeo Province of northwest Laos. The findings were released in March 2015, in a report called Sin City.

The GT SEZ has effectively become a lawless playground with a casino, hotel,
shops, restaurants, a shooting range and massage parlours, and visitors can
openly buy endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills and bears smuggled in from Asia and Africa.

EIA’s undercover investigators documented restaurants with endangered species on their menus and one business keeping a live python and a bear cub in cages, both of which were available to eat on request.

The complex also has ambitious plans for the manufacture of tiger bone wine. The team found four tigers at the GT SEZ in mid-2014 but by February 2015 the number had risen to 35; a senior keeper revealed the goal is to acquire a total of 50 females for breeding to increase the population to 500 tigers within three years and up to 1,000 in the long term to produce tiger bone wine for consumption at the GT SEZ and for export to China, via Yunnan.

Run by the Chinese company Kings Romans Group, which has a 99-year lease and an 80 per cent stake in the operation, the Government of Laos owns the remaining 20 per cent stake, declaring it a duty-free area and giving it political patronage at the highest level.

The Laotian authorities (with Chinese authorities present), undertook limited enforcement action at the GT SEZ, seizing and burning tiger skins two weeks after the release of the report. Unfortunately, no DNA samples were taken so no action appears to have been taken to investigate the origin of the tigers and sources confirm that the restaurants selling tiger bone wine and tiger meat were reportedly closed down, but are now open again, selling illegal wildlife under the counter.

Despite this, EIA’s investigations have put Laos and its role in illegal wildlife trade under the microscope and pushed foreign government representatives, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs into renewing their efforts to foster greater commitment and capacity from the Laos Government to deal with wildlife and forest crime. These independent and international exposés are a vital part of the process to catalyse change. With TigerTime’s help, EIA will continue to challenge the laws and policies that facilitate the trade, farming and consumption of tiger parts, campaigning for reform.

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