Over the past decade, several villages in Do Thanh commune in central Vietnam’s Nghe An province have become thrilling markets for trading tiger parts. Tuoi Tre reporters shed light on illegal tiger farms where the large cats are kept in captivity in small, unsanitary cages like those found at pig farms.
While pretending to be a hunter for tiger bone paste, a Tuoi Tre undercover journalist met Mr. T, a tiger farmer in Do Thanh commune’s Vach Bac hamlet, through the recommendation of a bus driver who said: “T. can draw a diagram of all tiger farms in the area.”
Since the driver is a friend of T, he judged that the Tuoi Tre reporter was a “satisfied customer” after several mutual greetings.
“If you want caged tigers to grow fast, you need to know about tiger care,” T. told Tuoi Tre after presenting the main features of tiger bone paste as a panacea.
“Farmers often feed cheap but healthy food to tigers, such as buffalo meat, chicken heads or vegetables. Cabbages or morning glory – a kind of vegetable – in particular need to be pulverized before being fed to the large cats,” T. explained.
When the reporter asked to buy some tiger bone paste, T said there are two different prices: an “internal” price for those who produce the bone paste at VND15 million (US$720) per ounce, and an “external” price for strangers ranging from VND20 million ($960) to VND21 million ($1008) per ounce.
T stated that if the bone paste costs under the above prices, it is certainly fake, adding that owners can earn huge profits from trading tiger parts.
A pair of tiger cubs weighing from 3-4 kilograms each is offered for sale from VND350 million ($16,800) to VND370 million ($17,762) (transportation costs included) in Thailand or Laos, T said.
After one year in captivity, the pair can weigh 200 kilograms in total. Since each kilogram of tiger fetches VND50 million ($2,400) on the black market, farmers can earn a profit of VND600 million ($28,804) after deducting food expenses (roughly VND400 million ($19,203)), he continued.
However, according to T, it is hard to take back the invested capital if cubs die. So, many villagers consider tiger farming as a risky business.
Tigers caged in attics
After the Tuoi Tre reporter expressed a wish to see how tigers live in captivity, T refused, saying: “If strangers know how our illegal tiger farming operates, the truth will come out sooner or later and we could face trouble. Thus, tiger farmers are very cautious of strangers.”
In addition, tigers are usually gentle to caretakers, but roar violently whenever they meet strangers or get sick. During such times, caretakers often increase the TV or cassette volume to conceal their roars.
However, since he did not want to let the reporter down, T revealed that tigers are kept in solid wire cages built in basements or attics at private houses, with each cage covering from 15 to 20 m².
According to T, tiger farmers never allow customers to visit the tiger cages unless they are sure that the customers are not police or forest rangers. People who have been recommended by their siblings are allowed to see the cages.
T told the reporter that not long ago two officials from Hanoi came to the house of a tiger owner in the village and asked to buy two tigers as a gift to their boss. After careful consideration, the farmer fixed a price of VND50 million ($2,400) per kilograms and required a deposit. The customers immediately put VND200 million ($9,600) on the table for the deal.
But when he handed over the tigers to the customers, police suddenly showed up and announced his arrest.
T then told another story explaining why strangers are always under the vigilant eyes of tiger owners: one day Do Thanh police unexpectedly searched the house of Nguyen Xuan Trong, who bred three tigers, following a tip-off from a jealous neighbor.
However, Trong was not arrested after his son allegedly gave a VND90 million ($4320) bribe to police and moved the tigers to another location.
When asked by Tuoi Tre about this case, Colonel Le Xuan Diep, police chief of Yen Thanh Commune, said he would respond later and declined to comment further about the case since the vice chief police, Pham Xuan Khanh, who is in charge of handling criminal cases, is busy studying.
A 100 kg tiger on the loose
T. revealed a shocking story that last year a large tiger weighing more than 100 kilograms that was kept in captivity at the house of Le Phuong – T’s younger brother – was shot after it escaped because the caretaker forgot to close the door to its cage.
After the tiger escaped, T. and other his brothers attacked the animal and gunned it down. The two other tigers in the cage were also electrically shocked to death in order to cover up the incident from local authorities.
However, the case was eventually uncovered. Afterward, Phuong quit the tiger farming business and opened a hotel.
Gov’t unaware of presence of caged tigers
Nguyen Van Xuyen, deputy chairman of the People’s Committee of Do Thanh commune, told Tuoi Tre: “I do not know anyone raising tigers at home. If they do so, they keep them in secret. Since tiger farming is illegal, they often hide it from authorities. As far as I know, parents even conceal tiger farming from their children.”
Meanwhile, Nguyen Trong Thuc, chief of the Forest Management Unit in Yen Thanh, said he has assigned staff members to track down the whereabouts of tigers in the locality 24/7.
“The problem is that many houses in the area are closed so it is difficult for us to find signs of tiger farms. I think illegal farming will only be uncovered if local police and environment and economic police from the provincial public security department work together,” Thuc said.
Colonel Le Xuan Diep admitted that he was told there are tiger farmers in Do Thanh commune, but he said the information has yet to be verified.
A Godfather of Tiger Bone Paste
After leaving Mr. T’s residence, the bus driver took an undercover Tuoi Tre journalist to a house in Dien Thap commune, just one kilometer from Vach Bac hamlet. When they stopped in front of a local house, the driver said: “A tycoon is cooking tiger bone paste there. Feel free to go in.”
A moment later the house’s owner, named Q and dressed in shorts, shook our hands and pointed at a large boiling pot nearby saying: “I’ve cooked the bones of a 200 kg wild tiger for two days in this pot.”
Around the pot, there were three stuffed tigers whose bones had already been boiled.
The stuffed tigers, along with stuffed bears and chamois and two expensive cars, are now displayed in Q’s house as a symbol of his wealth and status.
The reporter also saw a stuffed tiger head with its mouth wide open on the floor, which Q. said was the head of the large tiger whose bones were currently being cooked. Q. even showed us a smelly pelt hung up on a string which had been removed from the animal.
“The tiger bone paste in the pot is worth VND1 billion (US$48,000) in total. This was made from real tiger bones, not from miscellaneous bones of other animals. Members of the elite have ordered it. Because the bone paste is for them, I have to gain their trust. When we have available bone paste, they buy it at VND20 million ($960) per ounce without hesitation,” Q said.
There are many manufacturers of tiger bone paste in Dien Thap and Do Thanh communes, but they often have Q cook or determine whether bones are from tigers or not.
Q. revealed a secret of how to cook tiger bones effectively: “When you have real tiger bones, you need to clean the meat off the bones and its medulla so that the bone paste can be a panacea. Tiger bone paste is used to treat a variety of ailments, including rheumatism.”
Even when he saw the journalist taking photos, Q simply laughed as if nobody could punish him.
“Authorities at the commune, district and province levels are my “close friends”. If inspectors from a ‘ministry’ come, someone will inform me ahead of time,” Q revealed.
Q. is a well-known tiger bone paste cooker in Dien Thap commune, but he has never bought caged tigers in the farms based in Do Thanh commune. Instead, Q. purchases wild tigers smuggled to the commune.
According to Q., bone paste made from wild tigers is better quality and more profitable than that from farmed tigers. A 100kg tiger has 6 kilograms of bones, equivalent to 10.8 ounces (1kg = 1.8 ounces) of paste, while a wild tiger with the same weight has 10 kilograms of bones equivalent to 30 ounces (1kg = 3 ounces) of paste.
“The bones of wild tigers are much thicker and longer than those of caged tigers. Some people in Do Thanh commune feed tigers at home to sell or give as gifts to government officials who do not care if tigers are in a cage or live in the wild,” Q said.
To differentiate between whether tigers are kept in confinement or live in the wild, you have to see their teeth, Q said.
Tigers raised in captivity have weaker jaw muscles and smaller teeth than their wild cousins because they have little space to move and their natural instincts are not required to hunt for prey to survive, he explained.
After the conversation, Q asked the Tuoi Tre journalist, “Do you want to see tigers? They are not captive tigers but tigers that are going to be killed for bone paste.”
That evening, Q drove the reporter to a small house nearby. When they arrived, Q and the house owner hugged each other tightly, as if they had not seen each other for ages. After that, Q took the journalist into the back of the house where a cage holding two tigers was located.
Transportation of living tigers
“Dead tigers are often transported in refrigeration trucks. So, how you transport living tigers?”, our reporter asked.
“They are injected with an anesthetic. To bring them through border gates, we bribe customs officials VND50 million for each delivery. Sometimes, we transport them through waterways,” Q said.
“We ship tiger parts to customers in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi by plane. After killing tigers, we split them into different pieces that are neatly packed in bags before they are put on an airplane. We often bribe airport security guards anywhere from VND50 million ($2,400) to VND70 million ($3,360) per shipped tiger,” he continued.
Q said he used to get in trouble with the police for what he does. “One time, police knocked on my door, so I promptly moved two frozen tigers to another location. Everything was fine then, but I became more careful after that.”
Tran Hong, police chief of the Bureau of Environmental Crimes in Nghe An province, told Tuoi Tre that, “We have been told that some people in the province keep tigers at home, but it is very hard to approach their residence. If you are not their acquaintance, you are not allowed to enter.”
The People’s Committee of Yen Thanh commune has recently decided to set up an inspection team to examine villages that are suspected of housing farmed tigers starting from October 20.