Visiting a tiger farm in Southeast Asia—and what such places mean for wild tigers

Tiger in a cage

A couple of months after Leigh Henry, WWF’s director of wildlife policy, visited one of the world’s largest tiger farms in northeast China, she headed back to Asia. This time, she and her colleagues from WWF’s Tiger’s Alive team visited Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to continue the work of ending the illegal tiger trade and phasing out tiger farms.

During two weeks of travel, three countries, 34 meetings with other colleagues, non-governmental organizations, and government partners, the whirlwind trip proved productive, insightful, and set the groundwork for what lies ahead. Read Henry's takeaways from her trip and the road ahead for WWF’s tiger farm work:

Visiting a tiger farm in Southeast Asia

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In China, we visited a large, well-resourced facility, open to the public—including tours, gift shops, and more—with over 700 tigers in the heart of bustling Harbin. On this trip through Southeast Asia, we visited a significantly smaller tiger farm that shows just how varied these facilities can be. After driving down winding back roads into the country and stopping several times for directions from friendly residents, we finally arrived at a large but modest property with chickens, beautiful fruit trees, and a dilapidated cinder block structure housing six tigers in five chain-linked kennels.

The remoteness and size of this tiger farm is an example of why this job is so hard;large, commercial facilities in the middle of an urban center are much easier for enforcement to find and regulate, but the proliferation of smaller facilities in rural areas in Southeast Asia, where even close neighbors can't tell you exactly where they’re located, makes the task of stopping the illegal flow of tigers and their parts from these facilities complicated and difficult. We’ve even heard of people keeping and breeding tigers in basements to avoid detection.

Collaborations and challenges

Along with visiting a tiger farm, we worked with our WWF and TRAFFIC network colleagues to more clearly define our strategy towards ending the illegal tiger trade and phasing out tiger farms. In three countries, we built out the details of these strategies and convened with other organizations and government partners to discuss collaboration, just as we had done in China two months earlier.

It was great to meet face to face with our WWF and TRAFFIC colleagues from abroad and feel reinvigorated by their commitment to this issue, even given strong sensitivities with many of their governments. I was heartened, too, by the other amazing organizations working alongside us and grateful for their willingness to share their time. They added immense value and insight to our travels that will greatly benefit our work moving forward.

Tiger in a cage at a tiger farm

On the flip side, I was discouraged by our meetings with governments. Discussions varied from confusion and misunderstandings around their laws on tiger trade to touting misinformation about the situation with their wild and captive tigers. While discouraging, the conversations helped me to better understand what our colleagues in these Southeast Asian countries face in trying to move our agenda forward, and how we, sitting halfway across the world, can best support them in their efforts.

A difficult, but hopeful, road ahead

Even with the realization of the tough uphill road we have ahead in phasing out these farms and ending the illegal tiger trade that still threatens our remaining wild tiger populations, I’m bolstered by the amazing WWF, TRAFFIC, and partner organization staff we met on our journeys. I’m encouraged by what commitments we have seen from governments around tigers and illegal trade: China reconfirmed its commitment to its ban on tiger trade last year, Laos committed to close it’s tiger farms in 2016, and Thailand has begun the work of accounting for all of its captive tigers. But there continues to be a gap between some of these commitments on paper and commitment to effective action on the ground. I'm convinced that, working together, we can close that gap and make our goals a reality.

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