New research is among the first to interview the buyers of pressure-cooked tiger bones, known as “tiger bone glue,” which, in parts of Asia, is perceived as a remedy for a variety of ailments.
Thousands of tigers, bred on farms like pigs and raised in basements, end up in high-pressure cookers, where their bones are dissolved and transformed into traditional medicine.
More tigers now live in illegal captivity, on so-called “tiger farms,” than in the wild. The prominence of these farms is highest in Vietnam, China, and Thailand. On the farms, tigers are raised as livestock for the sole purpose of using their skeletons and body parts to produce illegal traditional medicines perceived as being able to treat rheumatic diseases and other ailments.
In 2017, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO, identified more than 200 tiger farms in China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam. Combined, these farms house between 7,000 and 8,000 tigers—more than twice the number of tigers remaining in the wild.
“Tiger bone glue,” as it is known, is a brown sap-like substance produced by dissolving tiger skeletons in a high-pressure cooker for two to three days. Tiger glue’s extreme popularity is a major reason why these animals end up being boiled down in Vietnamese basements, like those of Nghe An, where facilities are operated by numerous smaller producers.
Tiger bone glue raw materials
Tiger glue producers buy tigers from farms as cubs. Once large enough, the animals are slaughtered for their skeletons.
Due to the illegal nature of the trade, the details of who buyers are, their preferences, and what motivates them to pay upwards of $15,000 per kilo for tiger bone glue had never been studied.
After a considerable amount of time networking, Dang Vu Hoai Nam, a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen’s food and resource economics department, managed to get close to buyers, whose preferences are analyzed in the new study in the Journal of Nature Conservation.
“Among other things, we gained access to the tennis and golf clubs where many of these buyers spend time. These people are from Vietnam’s most affluent class, typically senior citizens who earn about 15 times as much as the average Vietnamese person,” says Dang Vu Hoai Nam.
Together with a team of research assistants, he tracked down and gained the confidence of 228 Vietnamese buyers and tiger bone glue users.
The “raw materials” of tiger glue don’t just come from tiger farms, but from poached wild tigers, too. In the manufacturing of this product, antelope bones, turtle shells, deer antler velvet, herbs—and in some cases opium—are also incorporated. The study reveals that buyers typically mix the finished “glue” into wine and vodka, which is then consumed daily.
Legalization won’t solve the problem
As with fish and other more familiar foods, the study shows that the provenance of the raw materials and manufacturing processes also matter to Vietnamese buyers of these illegal products.
“Most of the buyers we interviewed prefer tiger bone glue from wild tigers over farmed ones because they believe wild bones are more potent, and thus provide better treatment for a host of musculoskeletal diseases. At the same time, buyers seek the highest possible tiger bone content in their mixture,” explains Dang Vu Hoai Nam.
Forty percent of the buyers interviewed reported that they use tiger bone glue for musculoskeletal ailments. Thirty-two percent use it for their overall health, 6% use it to prevent diseases, and 5% to enhance sexual performance.
To tackle the poaching problem, politicians and authorities in Vietnam and other parts of Asia are now considering whether to legalize the breeding and use of tigers for tiger bone glue, among other things. But according to Dang Vu Hoai Nam, the study and buyer preferences demonstrate that legalizing tiger farming is unlikely to solve the problem of poaching.
“Even with legalization, demand for wild tigers will remain strong. A third of our respondents are still willing to buy tigers poached in the wild, which will simply sustain the black market,” says Dang Vu Hoai Nam.
Solving the problem is more about improving tiger conservation measures and equipping consumers with better information about the illegal product, he says.
“Rather than legalization, vulnerable countries should increase their investments in natural tiger habitats, the strengthening of police and park ranger forces, and information campaigns aimed at consumers that point them towards treatment alternatives which are more sustainable than tiger bones,” concludes Dang Vu Hoai Nam.
Source: University of Copenhagen