It is the Chinese Year of the Tiger but it has been far from auspicious. China's Shenyang Zoo has closed after 11 Siberian tigers died of starvation or were shot this year amid murky tales of body parts being used for traditional medicinal remedies.
The government has ordered an inquiry into the deaths of the rare Siberian tigers, of which there are only an estimated 300 left in the wild, 50 of them in China. But what has already played out before an enraged Chinese audience is a story of terrible neglect and poorly financed zoos.
The 11 tigers died after they were fed nothing but chicken bones at Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo, according to Chinese media reports this week. Another three listless big cats are shedding fur and have lost their appetites, the Xinhua news agency reported. A further two were shot dead after mauling a zoo worker in November 2009. The tigers are not the only victims of a cash crisis at the mainly privately owned zoological park. Twenty-six animals from 15 species have died this year, including four camels, a lion, a brown bear and a Mongolian horse. In all, the number of animals in the zoo has dropped by half in a decade, according to Xinhua.
Rumours swirled immediately that the tigers had been killed for their bones, which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Every year there are widespread illegal sales of tiger bones, penises and other parts because many believe that tiger parts can increase potency or cure diseases. A zoo worker, quoted by Xinhua, said the remains of the dead animal were used to make tiger-bone liquor that "was used to serve important guests".
But the zoo's managers denied anything untoward had happened and had allowed in experts to carry out tests and report the results to the authorities. "The tiger meat, skins and bones are kept in storage freezers," said Wu Xi, manager of the zoo. Officials ordered the zoo to close pending the result of an investigation, according to China's Global Times.
China banned the harvesting of tiger bones in 1993 and mentions of them were deleted from traditional medicine dictionaries. But tiger parts remain highly prized as an exceptional medical resource – tiger urine is used to treat eye infections, for example, and bones to treat rheumatism.
More than 5,000 tigers are held captive on farms and wildlife parks across China and there is an ongoing argument about allowing their bones to be used on a commercial basis.
Tigers are one of the most threatened large beasts on the planet, having slipped in numbers from over 100,000 in the early part of the last century to less than 3,200 remaining in the wild. Conservationists say they continue to be poached for their skins, and almost every part of a tiger's body can be used for decorative or traditional medicinal purposes. Tigers now survive in tiny areas and their plight is one of the main topics being discussed by conservationists at a meeting in Doha of signatories to the 200-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites). China signed the pact in 1981.
"Although the tiger has been prized throughout history, and is a symbol of incredible importance in many cultures and religions, it is now literally on the verge of extinction," said Cites secretary general Willem Wijnstekers in a statement this week.
"2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger and the International Year of Biodiversity; this must be the year in which we reverse the trend. If we don't, it will be to our everlasting shame," he said.
Shenyang's local government pledged seven million yuan (£680,000) to help save the remaining animals after news of the tiger deaths broke last week. Zookeepers have cleaned and installed heating in the tiger cages, given the animals nutritional supplements and started feeding them 2.5kg of beef and two hens per day, Xinhua said.