In April 2017 I was travelling with Phil, a South African camera man and film director, in SE Asia to compile some ‘pick up shots’ for a documentary on the rhino horn trade we were working on.
Hotel in China town in Vientiane, Laos
In Vientiane, the capital of Laos we stayed in a prominent hotel in China town catering to lots of Chinese visitors from the Middle Kingdom, all potential customers for a wide range of wildlife products harder to come by back home. Predictably a wide range of specialized shops selling these products surround the hotel. One of the largest such shops is run and partially owned by a lady who introduced herself as Linda. Originally from China but speaking English quite well, which is the exception.
Hotel lobby filled with Chinese tourists
Karl being shown phone images of tiger bone jewellery
After we got details on the price levels of various rhino horn products establishing that also here, the trend was from health to wealth and that the rhino horn shavings and powder had become a by-product with the artefact and jewellery products costing up to 15 times more per gram than the medicinal powder.
High priced tiger jewellery made from teeth and claws
Another objective of this trip was to try to find more reasonably priced tiger bone jewellery items to be DNA tested because I’m aware that there are a lot of fake products on the market. There’s also the fact that Laos had been importing hundreds of lion skeleton in the recent past with key dealers having informed us that, even for experts it was very hard to differentiate a lion from a tiger skeleton and pretty much all the lion bone claws and teeth are sold as originating from tigers.
For the first time, pink tiger bone jewellery
With some samples in hand I asked Linda what she had on offer. She explained that she had sold the last two tiger skeleton to some Chinese customer the day before but would get more within a week and if we had specific jewellery items in mind they could be produced to order. She showed us “tiger’ canines she had in her display case and how we could ensure that they were real. In terms of prices however they went for thousands of dollars and as such out of range for our sampling exercise.
Pink tiger bone jewellery along side jewellery made from regular tiger bone
She then mentioned that she could also supply some of the more upmarket pink tiger bone jewellery and that the pink colour was the result of the tigers being deboned while only sedated. She showed us images on her phone, one a tiger hanging on a meat hook being butchered and images of pinkish necklaces and bracelets. All this did not really sink in while discussing the issue across her display counter. My reaction at the time was “You mean to say the tigers are killed while still alive…” Realizing how ridiculous this sounded resulted in some laughter among the three of us. We left the shop agreeing to return in the afternoon when we would have some more time.
Phil and I then discussed the conversation and agreed that she had indeed tried to explain that the tigers were only sedated when they were deboned and that as such the heart would keep pumping blood through the body parts prior to the cat expiring and that this was the reason why the bones were pink and therefore a lot more valuable than the whitish/yellow bones we had seen in the past. We went back in the afternoon and confirmed this again in a similar conversation. As usual we had two hidden cameras running.
Regular tiger bone
And the distinctive hue of pink tiger bone. Note also the rhino horn bracelet worn by the vendor
However when we reviewed the material when we got back home we found that the images she showed us on her phone did not register or register very well on the hidden cameras and this key evidence was not in place. I asked my local operative who was with her during our morning meeting to call her and see if he could stop by to be able to photograph with his phone some of these images on the grounds that I had a friend who was interested in ordering some pink tiger bone jewellery. However this was now in June and a CITES technical mission had been announced and they were about to visit Laos. The government authorities had informed the traders to be careful and hide away the most obvious illegal items. Linda informed my operative that she had been told that for the time being, she should only work with her trusted line of buyers and suppliers; not interact with Westerners and only show them fake products if they asked.
I decided to return on a follow up trip in early June 2017 to see what reaction I would get. Most shops in China town had indeed cleaned up. Most of the ivory, rhino horn, horn bill carvings, tiger wine bottles etc. had disappeared from the shelves. Linda explained that they had been told to lay low and that she expected things to be back to normal in two months (after the CITES inspection team had departed).
I went to my old ‘spiel’ of a Chinese friend being interested in pink tiger bone jewellery but he needed to see what it looked like. She did pull out her phone and showed me necklaces and bracelets.
More tiger bone bracelets and bone parts displayed in a smart phone library
When I asked for the one she had shown us of the deboning process during the earlier visit she showed me one of a tiger on the floor supposedly being deboned while only sedated. I asked for the very bloody image of the tiger on the meat hook she showed us earlier but she said she had already deleted that one.
I then also asked our local investigator to have some beers with a former tiger farm manager who he knows well and ask about the process of butchering. The conversation was recorded on hidden camera and translated and confirmed that they had the sedatives to knock out the tigers and there was no problem to then top it up and do the deboning until the cat had expired. And yes, some of his customers asked for it specifically:
Investigator: I heard a Chinese man say, the more expensive bone is taken from the live tiger by giving the tiger medicine
Tiger farm manager : yes they do that, they also make a glue or cake that way
The macabre and disturbing image of a tiger being deskinned/deboned while only sedated – a key part of the production of pink tiger bone
Tiger kneecaps for sale (on left and middle)
A skull with the dried flesh and blood still attached
In the same conversation it was also confirmed that the knee caps are also a key product, even more valuable than the tiger penis which is a key body part Chinese customers are looking for. And having some tissue and blood stuck to all these items made them much more valuable. In the case of the hand and feet bones the pink colour was evidence that traces of blood was part of the package.
It was once again totally new information which was conclusively reconfirmed. It was not clear if this was a traditional approach to marketing tiger bone products or whether this had recently been ‘invented’ by traders in the ever evolving demand for more status and one-upmanship style of products which largely drives the marketing of a wide range of such wildlife products. As we had documented in the past with rhino horn and other items (now including carved Pangolin scales) the traders in question are very good business men and women who understand their predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese clientele and are constantly introducing new and more upmarket products for the more discriminating end of the market.
These fast moving trends are generally light years ahead of the conservation establishment still trying to figure out what drives the market and contemplating related demand reduction strategies, by which time the chance is high that the market has moved on again.
Demand reduction messages openly counteracted in posters on display in Chinese underground station. The message is the killing of the trophy lion feeds the orphans.