It has been estimated that there are a mere 3,000 wild tigers left in all the world. Even as conservationists and international officials scramble to see these animals saved, they often overlook one underlying threat. Tiger farming is driving a demand for exotic products that condemns these majestic hunters to a life as glorified livestock.

Author and conservationist Judy Mills is now dragging tiger farms into the spotlight in her new book Blood of the Tiger, in which she details the history and trouble with these questionably legal and often disturbing establishments through a narrative of her own experiences, which began 20 years ago.

Interestingly, the book doesn't open with a mention of tigers, but instead of bears. But as Mills' tale unfurls, you quickly see how investigating one illegal trade can lead you to another.

"What is true about the tiger trade is also true of the elephant trade, and rhino horn, and bear gall bladders... to my mind it all has the same root in terms of demand, which is 'wealth, not health,'" Mills recently told Nature World News, in an exclusive interview.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of conservationists and investigators are coming to the same conclusion. As Nature World News recently reported, trading in endangered animal parts, which includes tigers, has grown beyond the traditional medicinal market and is now catering to wealthy patrons eager to buy so-called luxury items like pelts, horns, and ivory. A worrying demand for these items has risen sharply even as illegal trade routes and hubs are shifting to accommodate the desire for live animals - namely tigers.

And what are live tigers being used for? They are being slaughtered for what The New York Times has referred to as "visual feasts" - shows in which a tiger is killed and carved for entertainment. Their bones are also being used to make tiger bone wine - a bizarre luxury that few can afford - that adorns the tables of wealthy businessmen for whom the drink represents the food trend de jour.

Investigations confirm this fact, but Mills believes the issue is even more cut-and-dry: Tiger farming has become an investment scheme.

"Things such as tiger bone wine represent a new asset class for wealthy investors - particularly for those who have become disillusioned with real-estate and stock markets," she explained. "These investors are banking on extinction. If tigers disappear from the wild, those parts and products... that investment will become priceless."

The Rise of the Tiger Farm

In a strange twist of fate, a desire to protect tigers in China has degraded into a scheme to turn these once proud beasts into mere livestock.

Back in 1993, Mills and her colleagues saw history made as China enacted a ban on the sale and consumption of tiger parts. At the time, this was a massive step forward for conservation - a sign that the Chinese government was listening to the concerns of international experts as well as the complaints of its own citizens. (Scroll to read on...)

Like a great many of her colleagues at the time, Mills thought the worst was over. It was a mistake she has been living with ever since.

"There are so many people who are at fault, including myself," she said. "We in the conservations community failed wild tigers because we didn't connect all the dots. We failed to see that the ban did not supplant China's law that mandated the farming trade and consumption of tigers."

She's talking about a wildlife protection law established in the late 1980s to - supposedly - meet demand for tiger parts without snatching them from dwindling wild populations. Under the new law, tigers were slated to become one of the 50-or-so endangered animals farmers were allowed to raise. The theory underlying the plan was to boost populations while also supplying the necessary parts used in traditional medicine. Although not ideal, the plan at least offered tigers a chance at survival.

However, with the historic ban in the 90s, which forbade the use of tiger products in even medicinal formulas, these farms found themselves in need of a new business plan.

"The government is now in a very sticky situation," Lixin Huang, the President American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, told us from San Francisco.

"Farms were established by the government in early days in a way to supplement the market on an as-needed base for 'severe medical conditions,'" Huang explained. But ever since the ban, demand for tiger parts in the traditional Chinese medicine community disappeared.

"It's important to understand that tiger bones have never been used as a single ingredient for any cure. It was always used along with other Chinese herbs," she said.

When the ban went into place, the Chinese medicinal community was ready, having already looked into alternatives, some of which had been pursued with research grants from understanding Chinese officials.

They were eager to do so, Mills explains, because legal practitioners of Chinese medicine desire worldwide acceptance. They want their practices to run right alongside western medicine. "And being associated with the consumption of an endangered species is bad for business," she added.

Four years ago, the Chinese Medicine Societies even declared its official rejection of tiger parts across the globe, striking the ingredient from their literature and institutions.

"We certainly face a lot of challenges in terms of illegal trade and confusion with farms, but in traditional medical terms this is a very clear case where we don't need tiger parts," Huang said. "Twenty years without them and no patient has suffered for it."

Flooding a Fool's Market

Having lost the demand of medicinal tiger parts, it was thought that tiger farms would have faded from history. Alarmingly, however, their numbers are on the rise.

In the early 1990s there were a little more than 100 farm-raised tigers in China. Now, there are an estimated 6,000 - twice as many tigers as there are living in the wild.

These farm tigers can often be found pacing treeless grounds as tourists gather to watch them tear into live goats that are dropped into their pens by mechanical cranes. (Scroll to read on...)

So what's going on here?

Farm proponents say that if the market can be flooded with legal tiger parts, the overall value of these products will go down, making poaching and shipping tiger parts simply not worth the effort. To that end, Mills will be the first to admit the argument actually sounds reasonable - at first.

However, it's not hard to see how this may never work.

"Poaching a tiger can mean the windfall of a lifetime for a poacher in India. And where it can cost as little as ten dollars to poach a wild tiger, ten dollars a day is what it costs to raise a farm tiger," she explained.

And then there's the issue of having to wait for a farm tiger to die in order to harvest its pelt and bones.

Even worse, "just having tigers on those farms in the first place is a promise that tiger products will one day be available. That in itself creates demand," the conservationist added.

What Mills has witnessed since tiger farming became widespread has not been a "flooding of the market" but rather a stimulation of it. Individuals who wouldn't normally show interest in illegal goods are finding themselves purchasing legal farm products.

"As one of my heroes and colleagues, Grace Gabriele says, 'These are products looking for a market, not a market looking for products.' And the wild stuff is the premium," Mills relates.

Pointing Fingers

In the interest of fairness, Nature World News looked into whether there are any concrete numbers helping to sell the notion of "dissolving the market by flooding it." After all, 5,400 tigers have found themselves on farms since the turn of the millennium - so shouldn't there be some concrete proof of a decline in demand or value?

In fact, recent INTERPOL reports have found just the opposite: the prevalence and profitability of environmental crimes, including the trade of endangered cats, has shot up within the last decade. Meanwhile, the number of recorded tiger trade incidents in India (a major trade hub) shot up by 30 percent during last year alone. (Scroll to read on...)

Despite the fact that China plays host to these farms that drive demand, the Chinese people themselves are not to blame, Mills continues to assert. In fact, she even helped conduct a study that found they want the tiger trade out of their country just as much as she does, if not more.

"It's really important to emphasize that this isn't a western driven issue. This is what the Chinese people want. They want to stop the trade, too," she said. "There's really just this small group of entrepreneurs and a cadre of their supporters in the Chinese government who are pushing this stuff, who are really promoting this because of their own potential for gain."

"And they are stimulating a demand that is too large to be met," she added with a quaking voice. "There are 3,000 tigers left in the wild. How many millionaires or billionaires does it take to gobble those tigers up? They could be gone in such a short time."

That's an awfully bleak picture, but Mills is convinced this "unpleasant and difficult conversation is one the world needs to have now" so more can be done about it.

"Are we going to let the last wild tiger be a casualty of our desire to tread lightly on indecision?" she asked.

Certainly not - not as long as people like J.A. Mills have something to say about it.

To learn more about Mills, her heroic colleagues, and the world's last tigers, check out Blood of the Tiger, which will hit bookstores and be available for download around the start of the new year.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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