Scandal of zoo's 'missing' tigers

Zoo accused of breeding animals in appalling conditions for Chinese aphrodisiac trade
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The Independent Online

At Sriracha Tiger Zoo, just outside Bangkok, some 400 big cats snarl photogenically for the tourists, boy scouts queue at the petting zoo to cuddle placid tiger cubs which, bizarrely, have been suckled by sows, and at the circus arena on the zoo premises, tigers thrill crowds by bounding through rings of fire on cue.

At Sriracha Tiger Zoo, just outside Bangkok, some 400 big cats snarl photogenically for the tourists, boy scouts queue at the petting zoo to cuddle placid tiger cubs which, bizarrely, have been suckled by sows, and at the circus arena on the zoo premises, tigers thrill crowds by bounding through rings of fire on cue.

But, behind the happy scenes, questions are being asked about this zoo and the animals it breeds in such numbers: where do all the tigers go? And is a shipment of 100 live tigers to China the tip of an illicit trade that serves the demand for tiger meat and folk medicine or aphrodisiacs concocted from ground bones?

This week, one of the zoo's owners, Sommai Temsiripong, faces charges for breeding tigers without a permit. It may well prove to be the opening phase of the great Thailand tiger scandal.

Campaigners have already raised issues about Sriracha. Sarah Christie, of the Zoological Society of London, said: "The way in which tigers are kept and bred , with such unnaturally large social groupings, is completely alien and different to carnivore breeding management elsewhere."

Each of the Bengal tigresses on display can produce a dozen cubs a year for around 15 years. In tropical climes, most are perpetually on heat and because some tiger mothers routinely eat or abandon their offspring, cubs often are separated and raised alongside pigs. The zookeepers claim this practice hastens the tigers' growth rate by up to 25 per cent.

But Victor Watkins of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), said: "Behind the scenes there are hundreds more tigers being bred in appalling conditions. The park states that there are no more than 200-400 tigers there. But they are breeding lots of new cubs every year, which prove impossible to trace. They say they are being bred for zoos but we can find no evidence of that."

In March, Thai legislators launched an investigation into a cargo of 100 live Bengal tigers from Sriracha Zoo that were sent by jumbo jet to Sanya Love World theme park in Hainan, southern China, on Christmas Eve 2002. Love World is run by Sanya-Maitree Concept Co, which is co-owned by the Hainan Governor, Wei Liucheng, and a Thai entrepreneur, Maitree Temsiripong.

Mr Maitree told reporters that a new Chinese government-sponsored research centre for tigers has ambitious plans to breed 200,000 cats within the next five years and eventually to release some from a forest preserve into the wild. No hard evidence appears to back up these claims, however. A spokeswoman from Sriracha Zoo, Jin Tana, denied that its tiger-breeding project had ever smuggled or trafficked animals for commercial gain: "Those 100 tigers were not sold. It was merely an exchange of animals with our Chinese partner." But last week, Thailand's National Intelligence subcommittee ruled that three government officials should be disciplined for violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by signing export papers for Sriracha without checking how the animals were obtained.

The scandal is unfolding as Bangkok prepares to host a CITES convention in October, and the fallout if there were flagrant violations by Thailand and China, both signatory countries, is bound to prove embarrassing. Thailand's notoriety as a wildlife trafficking supermarket will be hard to shed if it is proven that officials exploited a loophole that allows the loan and exchange of endangered species for scientific breeding programmes.

Mr Watkins believes that the officials are being used as scapegoats. He said: "The government is anxious to clear the whole thing up before the conference, and so is prosecuting a few officials. The whole park just clearly needs to be closed. There is no justification for breeding tigers in such large numbers; they are unlikely to survive if released into the wild and they are not being bred in registered studbooks and so zoos won't touch them."

Police commander Sawaek Pinsinchai told The Nation, a Bangkok daily: "Five months of investigation have led me to suspect that many of the tigers the company declared as having been bred in captivity were actually wild animals smuggled into the country."

Tiger pelts are valuable but hard to conceal, and black marketeers earn far more money by digging under the skin. The Chinese traditionally use ground tiger bone to ease rheumatism, the brain to treat acne and kidney fat to prolong erections. Tiger penis is soaked with an exotic liqueur which is quaffed at high end Chinese brothels. But the live tigers from Sriracha were labelled "No commercial value".

A report conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency into Thailand's tiger economy in 2001 found that several medicines derived from tiger bones were actually on sale on the zoo premises, at the Sriracha Health Traditional Medical Clinic.

The Worldwide Fund for Wildlife estimates that only 5,200 tigers remain in the wild.

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