October 21, 2009
Against tiger farming
Chinese tradition and modern scientific thinking both respect the
tiger’s role in protecting wild nature. Farming the big cat, writes
poet Ruth Padel, ruins China's reputation abroad.
One of China’s
oldest traditions is its respect for wild nature. Love for nature
shines from the early Chinese art, which my grandfather, Sir Alan Barlow,
an expert on Chinese pottery, taught me to love. And the tiger, which
originated in China, is the emblem of wild nature. Only Chinese art
has, from the beginning, painted tigers without reference to people.
Not tigers as hunted by men, but tigers alone in the wild. As in the
motif of “happy tiger in bamboo.” The tiger enjoying its forest
From 2000 to 2004, I walked in every type of forest
where tigers still live – in India, Bangladesh, Laos, Sumatra, Nepal,
Bhutan, Russia and China. In the snowy mountains of Hunchun Tiger
Reserve, China, I followed with scientists and conservationists the
footprints of dongbei hu, the north-east tiger. I also met local people
whose cows are eaten by dongbei hu. These people pray to Shanshen,
protector of the mountains, often represented with a tiger companion. I
stood with a farmer who pours wine to Shanshen in his backyard
There are many ways of being civilised. People who
live in cities need to respect people like this farmer who live close
to the wild and who, in their turn, respect the tiger as guardian and
protector of wild nature. Their beliefs agree with the most developed
modern scientific understanding: that human beings need a healthy
environment, that forests are the best guarantee of a country’s
physical health, protecting the country’s water, soil and air supplies,
and that if the tigers which evolved in those forests still live in
them, these are healthy forests, which mean a healthy human
In Shanghai, giving a poetry reading, I learned from my audience about the Chinese writer Lu Xun,
who promoted the works of Charles Darwin in the 1920s. I realised that
China is one of the very few major powers in the world whose population
has total respect for Darwin. Nobody in China questions that evolution
is the foundation of biology. Thanks to Darwin, modern biologists know
that tigers belong in the forest where they evolved as solitary forest
animals. Conserving them properly means conserving wild tigers in their
natural environment, the forest.
Conserving tigers in
their wild environment helps to conserve human spiritual as well as
physical health. “If enjoyment of nature should end, who would
understand what all this means?” said Xie Lingyun
(385–433), one of China's first nature poets, in his Mountain Poems. By
“all this,” Xie meant human life as well as the world:
ourselves-in-our-environment. In philosophy and poetry, as well as in
art, Chinese civilisation understood, earlier than anybody, that human
beings need wild nature to exist for itself, even if we do never
actually enter the wild ourselves: that civilised human life depends on
a balance of wild and tame.
Darwin’s great insight was
that human beings are connected to other animals: that we are part of
nature, not opposed to it. Chinese tradition understood that for our
spiritual health, we human beings need the wilderness to exist, even if
we never see it or enter it. The balance of wild and domestic keeps us
civilised, keeps us human.
Both ancient Chinese tradition and
modern scientific thinking, therefore, respect the tiger’s role in
protecting wild nature. Today’s scientific understanding of
conservation agrees with the deepest human needs, understood by early
Chinese tradition, for spiritual and physical human health.
has many brilliant people who know this, and wish to conserve the tiger
according to modern scientific understanding in the environment where
it evolved. Unfortunately they face opposition from people who wish to
make money out of the tiger, not as a part of wild nature, but as a
Money can be made from tiger parts because
human beings, as they evolved, became supremely symbol-hungry
creatures. Tigers are beautiful and powerful symbolic animals, which
are now becoming extinct in the wild because human beings have a
powerful primitive urge called symbolism – and powerful primitive urges
can be translated into money.
It is irrational to hope to
become better ourselves – more beautiful and powerful, for instance –
by taking part of a tiger’s body into our own. Eating its flesh, or
hoping that its bone might cure our sore places. This kind of symbolism
is magical thinking, like the wishful thinking of a child.
herbal medicine is a wonderful tradition and helps people everywhere.
But tiger bone is not herbs. Scientifically, without herbal additions,
tiger bone has been proven to be exactly the same, and have the same
effects, as mole-rat bone. Neither of them has been proved, medically,
to help human bodies. But if they did, they would only be a minor
analgesic, not even as powerful as aspirin.
It is not the
scientific value – the chemistry of this bone – but irrational symbolic
belief about what tigers represent, which makes people imagine that
tiger parts can cure what is wrong with them. Xiongsen Bear and
Mountain Tiger Village in Guilin effectively acknowledges this in a
document submitted to the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species (CITES), saying that selling tiger bone to patients
with rheumatism would fulfil a “social need”.
It is mostly
poor people who use tiger bone medicine. It would be more responsible
to send them to a doctor than legalise the sale of something that is
not proven to cure them. To legitimise the use of tiger bone in Chinese
medicine, in fact, would blacken the name of Traditional Chinese
Medicine throughout the world. To farm tigers in order to provide it,
betrays Chinese tradition even more deeply: it betrays China’s
tradition of respecting wild nature and valuing spiritual and
First, tiger farming destroys the
conservation of wild tigers. Farming wild animals endangers the same
animals in the wild: this has been demonstrated everywhere – with
bears, crocodiles and turtles, as well as tigers. People make money
from it due to human weakness, human greed and human gullibility.
People always believe that “wild is better”, and if they can, they pay
more for wild than farmed. And so more wild tigers – in other
countries, not China – die. Poachers kill wild tigers cheaply
everywhere, sell them for Chinese medicine, and make more profit out of
them than tiger farmers do out of farmed tigers. As we can see
from the report by the Xiongsen Bear and Mountain Tiger Village, whose
1,300 tigers require five tonnes of meat per day – demonstrating how
expensive it is to farm tigers.
Second, no zoo anywhere in
the world needs to keep more than five tigers in cages to show to
tourists. Breeding tigers like battery hens imitates some of the worst
mistakes of western modernisation, which most leading social thinkers
in the west now denounce. Keeping so many mole rats in cages – which
would be just as effective medically – would be bad enough. But to keep
tigers in groups in cages is an offence against evolution and against
nature, because tigers evolved to live wild and alone.
and alone is how tigers need to live, as ancient Chinese tradition
knew. For our spiritual health, we human beings need to respect this
animal to whom Chinese tradition looks up as the solitary “happy tiger
in bamboo,” guardian of wild nature.
The money spent on
maintaining tigers in Guilin would be far better spent by respecting
nature in accordance with Chinese tradition, conserving wild tigers in
a wild forest environment, protecting them from poachers and enriching
human lives by making a tiger reserve that the international community
would respect and marvel at.
Beautiful facilities, and a
properly protected reserve to show tigers to tourists properly and
scientifically, would not only gain China genuine international
respect, but also provide much more money in the long run than the
revenue earned from the false magic of legalising the sale of tigers’
Tiger farming caters to the most gullible and
ignorant aspects of human nature. It is a barbaric practice. It can
give China a bad name internationally and thus injure the achievements
of China today. To farm tigers in order to sell illegal tiger parts for
medicine is a way of earning money that looks primitive and
exploitative. The rest of the world has learned from China in the past,
from its traditions of respecting nature, science and spiritual truth.
Tiger farming betrays these traditions.
Padel is a leading British poet, fellow of the Royal Society of
Literature and Zoological Society of London. She is author of Tigers in
Red Weather, an internationally acclaimed book on tiger conservation,
and of Darwin – A Life in Poems, the biography in lyric poems of her
great great grandfather Charles Darwin.