Tiger trade in Asia and Europe exposed in documentary The Tiger Mafia

Investigation into Tiger Mafia, photo: Karl Ammann / Wild Animal Department
Investigation into Tiger Mafia, photo: Karl Ammann / Wild Animal Department

Breeding farms with thousands of tigers, tiger petting zoos, and traditional medicine and luxury items made from tiger parts are exposed in the new documentary The Tiger Mafia by conservationist and filmmaker Karl Ammann. The documentary premieres online on Thursday.

Ammann uncovers what’s behind the trade in tigers and where the demand for their parts is coming from. They infiltrate trade networks to understand who the key players are, which routes they use, where the tigers are being sourced, and how they are killed.

The documentary reveals the mafia-like structures of the tiger trade, especially in China and Southeast Asia. Tigers are legally speed bred there on an industrial scale, as Ammann’s documentation of over 200 Chinese tiger farms with approximately 6,000 tigers and many more in Laos and neighboring countries show.  

In 2020, more tigers are living in captivity than in the wild. It’s estimated that only 3,900 tigers still live in the wild.

Many of the tiger farms also have petting zoos where cubs can be used for interactions with tourists to maximize profits. When the cubs are two years old, they become dangerous and can no longer be used for tourism.

They are then killed and their parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine or sold as luxury items like jewelry or rugs from their skins.

In the documentary, a jewelry seller in Laos explains that the bones are said to get their special coloration during the extraction process. Tigers are alleged to be sedated and their bones are removed while they sleep.

Intense emotional and physical abuse of tigers
“Captive tigers frequently display severe physical and mental health issues. They are taken away from their mothers at a very young age to entertain tourists and pose for photos,” says Kieran Harkin, head of Wild Animals in Trade at the animal welfare organization Four Paws.

“In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers for two years, which is a harsh contrast to the two months in most facilities that use the cubs for interactions. On tiger farms and in petting zoos, they are denied any natural behavior,” he continues.

“In China, captive tigers are often deliberately starved to death, because only if they die of a natural cause is it legal to use their body parts,” Harkin says.

Tiger trade in Europe
Four Paws contributed to the documentary with their research from Europe, where an estimated 1,600 tigers live in captivity. Their investigations reveal an active trade between EU countries and China, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Ammann’s documentary and research done by Four Paws show that the tiger mafia works with an extensive network that can be found even in the middle of Europe.

“It is legal in the EU to breed tigers for commercial trade and across Europe. There are weak laws and regulations that make commercial tiger breeding and trade extremely easy,” Harkin says.

“This is why we see cases of illegal activity and such a high number of tigers in Europe. Nobody knows exactly how many tigers are in Europe and what happens to them when they become too old to be used in petting zoos and in circuses,” Harkin continues.

Most EU member states do not have central registers; tiger breeders can easily forge official papers or sometimes do not even record births or deaths, which makes it impossible to have any control over trade or illegal trafficking.

At the beginning of September, the little white lion cub Lea made headlines after police discovered her after a car crash in Germany. Animal welfare organizations wanted to rescue her from being sold, but German authorities allowed the trade because they said her papers showed only a small mistake.

“We can only play a role in fighting the illegal tiger trade when Europe cleans up its own act and becomes part of the solution and not the problem,” Harkin explains.

Register here to watch the virtual premiere of The Tiger Mafia on Thursday.

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