Is China serious about ending the trade in tigers and other endangered animals?
The question posed itself last Saturday as I sat at an auction in Beijing watching the hammer go down on cases of spirits and tonics fortified with tiger, rhino horn and pangolin.
Sales of such products are forbidden by Chinese law and international convention, yet even though the event at the Kunlun Hotel had been advertised the previous night on state television and flagged up by outraged conservation groups, uniformed police were initially conspicuous by their absence.
However, the buyers had turned up in droves, or more precisely in Audis and BMWs, for this was a sale aimed very much at the affluent middle class.
Nobody could be mistaken about the contents. The auction house — Googut — had devoted more than a dozen pages in its catalogue to tiger bone wine. Many other liquors up for sale included tiger as a medicinal ingredient to “stave off chills, improve circulation and eliminate fatigue.”
The starting prices ranged from 5,000 yuan (US$786) to 200,000 yuan per case.
On the screen at the front of the hall, a photograph of each item flashed up on the screen and a counter in four currencies clicked upward as the auctioneer called out bids from the audience.
I watched silently at first, recalling that exactly one year earlier I had been listening to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) reaffirm his country’s ban on such products at a global tiger summit in St Petersburg, Russia. I also knew that overhead two giant pandas were being flown in a chartered plane to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they would be presented as symbols of China’s commitment to conservation.
I decided to reveal that I was a journalist, so I could ask the backroom auction staff about the apparent illegality of the items on sale. They told me they were produced before the State Council banned all trade in tiger and rhino horn products in 1993 and are therefore legal.
However, this was a half truth. The State Council also ordered that older items be sealed and removed from sale. Ahead of the auction, conservation groups raised this issue with the government.
“It doesn’t matter whether the tiger bone products are pre-ban or not, their trade is forbidden by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and domestically in all tiger range states,” Grace Ge Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said. “Moreover, the sale of tiger products of any kind confuses the public, stimulates market demand and fuels poaching of tigers.”
The non-governmental organization protest made a difference. On the day of the auction, the security bureau of the State Forestry Administration ordered Googut to halt the auction of tiger bone wine.
However, it was only a partial clampdown — and I wonder how seriously it would have been taken if the auctioneers had not realized that there was a reporter present. Up until the moment I revealed I was a journalist, the auctioneer had coasted through an earlier part of the catalogue, covering cases of spirits (not wine) that contained tiger ingredients.
However, once my journalistic identity was known, the police arrived and made a show of locking one of the doors. The staff quietly insisted I leave the hall because I was not a buyer.
I do not question their right to do so, but I doubt their motives. (I was not the only person watching without a bidders’ card and nobody had cared about my presence before I started asking questions). I whispered back that I wanted to stay a few extra minutes so I could be sure that the bidding for tiger wine would be halted, as the authorities had ordered. Three plainclothes security men then flanked my chair and kept nudging me to leave.