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Hidden Tigers

The once lucrative business of tiger breeding has dwindled due to increased animal protection regulations, leaving owners out of pocket and tigers in a precarious position

By Wang Yan , Hu Kefei Updated Sept.1

Tigers at Li Mingyi’s breeding center, Shaodaogou, Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province (Photo by Ma Yongdong)

The smell is the first thing to greet visitors to the isolated property, some four kilometers along a winding, bumpy dirt road up a mountain, followed by the noise of roaring. Outside the gate lies a white plastic bag containing fresh animal feces. The sound of the car brought people to the high iron gate, asking: “Where’ve you come from?”  

This private breeding center for Amur tigers is located in a remote and desolate mountain valley called Shaodaogou, near the Winter Olympic city of Zhangjiakou, some 200 kilometers northwest of Beijing in Hebei Province.  

Learning the reporter was invited by their boss Li Mingyi, the man swung open the gate to the base, where around 80 tigers, 10 lions and four wolves live. It was a last-ditch attempt to get media attention so Li could continue operating his struggling base.  

Yet, even though Li has been appealing for help for months, animal keepers said he continues to allow big cats to breed, even though China has an excess of captive tigers. 

Wild Comeback 
Wild tiger populations have steadily increased in the last decade. The number of wild Siberian tigers in northeastern China increased from less than 10 at the end of 1990s to more than 60 now. In 2019, infrared camera traps captured images of Bengal tigers in Medog County, Tibet Autonomous Region, a surprising presence of this endangered species inside China. Their habitat is within the range of the national nature reserve of the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, an incredibly diverse region in southeastern Tibet.  

Alongside public advocacy for reform since 2016, China’s revised Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) went into effect on May 1, 2023, significant progress in the guiding principles for wildlife protection. According to Xie Yan, a researcher at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the term “wildlife exploitation” in the previous WPL has evolved. Xie told NewsChina that rather than encouraging reasonable utilization of wildlife and captive breeding, the new law plays down or limits “wildlife exploitation” with more emphasis on strict management regulations, although it does not completely outlaw exploitation. For example, to adjust overpopulations of certain wildlife species that cause human wildlife conflicts, it allows certain control measures.  

But the ripple effects of upgraded protection efforts, tightened regulations and the amended law mean that private captive tiger breeding is struggling to survive. 

Hungry Beasts 
Li built his base along the mountain slope, with tiger cages sitting along the contours. There is a constant echo of tigers roaring. Some big cats are housed in individual cages, some are in a male-female pair, but divided into separate cages. Except for an open feeding window, the cages are locked, though some parts of the tiger houses are connected to fenced areas on the mountain. When the weather is good, the tigers can roam outside.  

The big cats, while not used to strangers, are habituated to people, and approach the front of the cages without hostility or aggression.  

As the reporter walked closer to the cages, some tigers took their unfinished food, mainly still-frozen chicken and duck, and walked away. The tigers looked relatively well-kept, and did not appear to display the repetitive behaviors typical of captive animals.  

“These tigers were raised in captivity since birth. Compared to wild tigers, they’re less aggressive and watchful,” said a keeper surnamed Tian. He said their largest male Siberian tiger weighs around 250 kilos.  

They mostly eat frozen chicken, duck, beef, eggs and milk. “Our boss buys the food and sends it up,” Tian said, adding that a delivery might be thousands of kilos of meat. “Most young beasts eat frozen chicken and frozen duck, pregnant females eat some beef, and young and older tigers need milk, eggs and beef. They totally consume at least 350- 400 kilograms of meat a day, but it’s not enough. These animals need to eat a lot and the food is hard to afford.”  

Tian’s wife complained the tigers often roar at night. “They don’t get enough to eat, so they don’t sleep well,” Tian said.  

“Food costs up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,447) a day, so you can calculate how much money we need every month or every year. We can’t sell tickets for tourists, and we can’t sell the tigers to other zoos. So it’s basically investment without any return,” Tian said, then looked at a tiger in a cage and sighed.  

The base employs four workers, including Tian and his wife.  

Before he came to the base in February, Tian, 62, and his wife worked as animal keepers at Qinhuangdao Wildlife Park in Hebei Province for more than 20 years, with a monthly salary of 6,000 yuan (US$868). He used to be an elephant keeper, but he feels confident in his new role. “Animals all need the same things, to eat, drink, defecate and urinate, so as long as they’re not sick, they can survive.”  

He admitted that compared with other animals, the biggest issue is giving the big cats medications when they get sick, especially injections. This means calling in veterinarians. “They’re really vigilant and they only eat meat. If you hide medicine inside the meat, they spit out the medicine and still swallow the meat,” Tian said.  

Another keeper, surnamed Guo, showed NewsChina his torn clothes and scarred arms. “We get scratched often, and once it happened to me, I really understood how different tigers and lions are from cats and dogs. So we have a rule that no one can touch them, except our boss.” 

Secret Breeding 
Li Mingyi, 69, lives in a courtyard house in Xuanhua District, Zhangjiakou, some 50 kilometers from the base, where he spends most of his time now due to ill health. Before he had the mountain base, Li kept 20 tigers in his courtyard.  

Even now, Li has two tiger cubs and a lion cub playing in his courtyard, without any fear of strangers. “They’re about three months old, and so I brought them here because of the cold winter, and I’ll send them back when the weather gets warmer,” Li said as he shooed the cubs away from the reporter’s legs.  

Li’s claimed origin story about how he got into the tiger business starts in the year 2000. According to Li, returning from a business trip to Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, he saw a box with four little “cats.” He claims he felt sorry for them and took them home. After a few days, he noticed the cats had developed stripes and realized they were tigers. As there are no records of wild Siberian tigers in the northern part of Inner Mongolia, the cubs may have been abandoned by a traveling circus who had bred them. But Li did not alert wildlife authorities, and decided to keep them.  

Li said he had made his money in livestock breeding and construction in the 1990s. He thought he could breed tigers himself, and after one tiger gave birth to cubs in 2005, he knew he had to expand the gene pool.  

“I know that inbreeding wouldn’t be good for them, so I needed to have them mix with other tigers. In the early 2000s, there used to be loads of traveling circuses, so I tried to seize the opportunities whenever they came to Zhangjiankou,” Li said. He had to pay the circuses to have their captive tigers mate with his.  

During that decade, Li could afford the costs of feeding and breeding his tigers. In his own words, it was a time without many restrictions. When the number of tigers reached around 30, his courtyard could no longer contain them. Li realized that with changing perceptions toward wildlife protection and stricter enforcement of wildlife laws, he could not keep them without an official license. He decided to move the big cats to the mountains, building a base into which he said he sunk 10 million yuan (US$1.45m) of his own money.  

It took a long time to be officially licensed. He started in 2014, but his facility had deficiencies and was not approved. In 2017, the State Forestry Administration sent experts to inspect and supervise improvements to the shaodaogou Valley Base, and he was finally granted his license. 

Now Li is older and his business has become difficult to manage, leaving him struggling to feed the nearly 100 animals. Li wants to sell them, but he waited too long. While he is circumspect about why he wanted to breed tigers, and for what commercial purposes, the new laws around animal conservation and dwindling interest in circuses with animals have curtailed trade in protected animals like tigers. 

A tiger owned by a circus troupe rests between performances, Rizhao, Shandong Province, January 30, 2017 (Photo by IC)

Sales Ban 
On October 6, 2018, the State Council issued a Notice on Strict Control of the Operation and Utilization of Rhinos and Tigers and Their Products, which states that exploiting tigers and their products are prohibited, and their sale, purchase, transport, import and export are banned. This means much more control over wildlife management and protected animals, particularly the breeding and transportation of national first- and second-class protected animals. Siberian tigers come under first-class protection, according to the law.  

Data released in 2016 indicated that there were more than 4,000 tigers living in captivity in China, including at conservation centers, zoos and with private owners.  

After the notice, many private circuses were disbanded. Li Mingyi not only lost potential customers, but selling and transporting the animals is all but banned. His former circus customers that still keep tigers face the same situation. According to a report in The Beijing News in late 2021, more than 1,000 tigers were living in captivity in farmers’ yards in Yongqiao District of Suzhou, Anhui Province. Yongqiao is famous for its circus industry, which has been passed down for generations.  

Selling and transporting of captive tigers had been a gray area for years, with lax regulation that allowed circuses and private breeders to buy and sell wild animals. Now, it is difficult for breeders to even get transportation permits.  

Some breeders have been arrested and punished for transporting tigers without permits. According to legal website China Judgments Online, on January 8, 2021, a Yongqiao District court sentenced a defendant surnamed Tao to 10 years in prison for illegally buying and transporting rare and endangered wildlife.  

Some breeders were jailed after they slaughtered their tigers to sell skins and other parts, including bones which are used for “tonics” and folk remedies. In October 2018, a villager surnamed Li from Yongqiao slaughtered a female tiger he had kept for around eight years and sold it for 65,000 yuan (US$9,061). He also slaughtered a domesticated lion to sell. When his illegal activities were discovered, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  

In the first half of 2017, Anhui Daqingshan Wildlife World, which was then under construction, had agreed to buy 20 of Lee’s tigers, but it had not taken delivery when the new rules came. Li said many other plans to sell tigers had fallen through since then, for the same reasons. A manager of a zoo in a provincial capital, who asked for anonymity, told NewsChina that since captive breeding of tigers is not difficult, zoos do not need to buy them. Even when some private zoos wanted tigers, they were unable to buy or transport them after 2018.  

“Small zoos, because of low visitor numbers and ticket sales, can’t support the cost of raising big cats. Tigers and lions need a lot of space, so small zoos choose not to exhibit tigers,” the provincial zoo manager said.  

Li said he even thought of releasing some of his tigers, but he knows they will not survive in the wild. “Where can I release them? In the mountains of Hebei? Or mountains in Northeast China?” he asked. Keeper Tian said it is unrealistic to release them. “What if they hurt someone? The tigers don’t have the ability to hunt by themselves and even if you release them in the Greater Khingan mountains [where some wild tigers live], they’ll starve to death in a few days. Also, he’s spent so much money on feeding them, releasing them would mean all the efforts have been for nothing,” he said. 

Seeking Solutions 
In August 2022, authorities visited Li’s base, requesting he make upgrades, add facilities such as a fire isolation belt, surveillance camera system and a tiger collar tracking system.  

But since Li struggles to feed the tigers, there is nothing spare for improvements. He said he had hoped to build a zoo and sell tickets. But that would take a huge investment. Li has pinned his last hopes of sustaining the breeding center on the local government. “I hope they offer me either policy or financial support so I can keep these tigers,” he said.  

Wang Shukai, director of the Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Center in Zhangjiakou, told NewsChina that authorities had taken note of Li’s difficulties and held several meetings to coordinate and discuss plans. But some of Li’s proposals, such as opening a wildlife park with the local government, are not included in Zhangjiakou’s plans for the next few years.  

“If the issue of finding finances to maintain the breeding center aren’t resolved, these tigers and lions may have to starve to death, but I don’t believe that will happen,” Li said. Wang Shukai acknowledged that if Li is unable to operate such a large Siberian tiger breeding base, the government will certainly have to find a solution. “And if we can’t, we’ll have to turn to the provincial level government,” Wang said.  

The National Forestry and Grassland Administration responded to NewsChina that it would address the current difficulties faced by Li Mingyi’s breeding center through more detailed research, and would present their solution soon.  

The zoo manager said questions need to be asked about Li’s operation. “Why would he continue to breed when he already knew he couldn’t trade or afford them? What was the original intention of raising those tigers and where have all the tigers gone that died over the years?”  

Li insisted that no adult tigers have died, only cubs, and their bodies are kept in freezers. “Not a single one is missing,” Li said.  

At the base, the reporter noticed that in a cage near the gate are three Siberian tigers, one male and two females. Both females were apparently pregnant and would deliver their cubs soon. “One female tiger can probably have two or three more cubs,” Tian commented with a bewildered look. “Mr. Li has been complaining about his lack of money, but why does he still allow these tigers to breed, and what’s his next step?” Tian’s wife said with a sigh.