THE TIGER MAFIA ONLINE WORLD PREMIERE AND LIVE Q&A
12th NOVEMBER 2020
18.00PM – 21.00PM GMT
November 2020– The new documentary “The Tiger Mafia” by Karl Ammann exposes shocking discoveries from ten years of investigations into the tiger trade in Asia: breeding farms keeping thousands of tigers, tiger petting zoos along with traditional medicine and luxury items made from their body parts are all investigated in the film. Global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS contributed to Ammann’s findings with their research from Europe, where an estimated 1,600 tigers live in captivity. Investigations by FOUR PAWS reveal an active trade between EU countries and China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Between 2014 and 2018 alone, 120 import and export permits with live tigers and their body parts were legally issued between EU countries and Asia, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The number of unreported cases of illegal trade could be much higher which is often the case when comparing legal trade numbers to projected illegal trade data. In order to protect all tigers from commercial exploitation whether they are in the wild or captive bred, FOUR PAWS is calling on the EU Commission to finally end the commercial trade of tigers and their body parts.
For the documentary “The Tiger Mafia”, which has its virtual world premiere on November 12, Karl Ammann spent a decade examining the mafia-like structures of the tiger trade, especially in China and Southeast Asia. Tigers are legally bred there on an industrial scale, as Ammann's documentation of over 200 Chinese tiger farms with an approximately 6,000 tigers and many more in Laos and neighbouring countries show. The tigers are speed bred to be used in zoos that offer cub petting as well as other forms of entertainment and ultimately to supply the insatiable demand for tiger parts. For comparison: there are only an approximate t 3,900 tigers still live in the wild. To maximise profits many of the tiger farms operate petting zoos where cubs can be used for interactions. When the cubs are two years old, they become dangerous and can no longer be used in the tourist facilities. They are then killed to be used in traditional medicine or sold as luxury items including jewellery or rugs from their skins.
“Captive tigers frequently display severe physical and mental health issues. They are taken away from their mothers at a very young age to entertain tourists and pose for photos. In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers for two years which is a harsh contrast to the two months in most facilities that use the cubs for interactions. On tiger farms and in petting zoos they are denied any natural behaviour and their vast ecological needs simply cannot be met. In China, captive tigers are often deliberately starved to death, because only if they die of a natural cause is it legal to use their body parts,” says Kieran Harkin, Head of Wild Animals in Trade at FOUR PAWS.
Lucrative business with an extinction-prone species
According to FOUR PAWS, a European live tiger can cost up to £19,600 (€22,000) when purchased in Vietnam, but even when dead the animals are very valuable. A small tiger tooth costs around £713 (€800), a bottle of tiger wine – a supposedly healing tincture made from tiger bones – around £197 (€220). According to Ammann's investigations, claws, eyeballs, brains, tails, innards, and fur are also processed, especially for traditional medicine and as jewellery. Pink tiger bones are considered a particularly precious luxury item. In Ammann's documentary, a jewellery seller in Laos explains that the bones are said to get their special coloration during the extraction process. Tigers are alleged to be sedated and their bones are removed while they sleep. Products made of tigers are not only in demand in Asia with European authorities also noting seizures in these items. FOUR PAWS research shows that over 8,000 illegal tiger products, such as tiger wine, were confiscated in the EU between 1998 and 2017. CITES – signed by 183 countries including China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos – actually, prohibits the commercial trade in tiger parts. However, this has done very little to limit the number of tigers bred in captivity to be killed and their body parts commercially traded.
Similar developments in Europe
Ammann's documentary as well as research conducted by FOUR PAWS show that the tiger mafia works with an extensive network that can be found even in the middle of Europe. “It is legal in the EU to breed tigers for commercial trade and across Europe there are weak laws and regulations that make commercial tiger breeding and trade extremely easy. This is why we see cases of illegal activity and such a high number of tigers in Europe. Nobody knows exactly how many tigers are in Europe and what happens to them when they become too old to be used in petting zoos and in circuses,” says Harkin. Most EU member states do not have central registers, tiger breeders can easily forge official papers or sometimes do not even record births or deaths which makes it impossible to have any control on trade or illegal trafficking "Some European tigers are exported to Asia, because the buyers there believe that European big cats are bigger and stronger, which makes them especially valuable for breeding. We can only play a role in fighting illegal tiger trade when Europe cleans up its own act and becomes part of the solution and not the problem. This can only happen when Europe ends the commercial trade in tigers and parts including the export of tigers to Asia for commercial purposes," says Harkin.
Director: Karl Ammann | Producer: Hook Film | Year: 2020 | Length: 97 min
Movie theaters may be closed, and film festivals cancelled but that doesn’t mean that sheltering-at-home film and documentary lovers should miss out on the latest and greatest in cinema.
On the 12th of November, join us for an exclusive online premiere of the film The Tiger Mafia, exposing China and South East Asia’s legal and illegal tiger trade. A passionate account told through the eyes of conservationist and filmmaker Karl Amman.
Following almost a decade of investigations, Karl Ammann uncovers what’s behind the trade in tigers and where the demand for their parts for the production of traditional medicine is coming from.
The challenge was to infiltrate trade networks to understand who the key players are, what are the routes, where are the tigers being sourced and how they are killed to be sold as luxury items and traditional medicine.
About the filmmaker
Karl has lived in East Africa for 40 years, is a conservationist, and author, an award-winning photographer and documentary film producer. His main objective with initiating and directing films like The Tiger Mafia is to take away the excuse of “I did not know” – especially from policymakers. Karl believes that selling feel-good conservation tales with a happy ending is a lot easier than documentaries showing the reality behind the issues that affect wild animals.
About the host
Aaron Gekoski is an award-winning environmental photojournalist, filmmaker and TV presenter, specialising in human-animal conflict.
Aaron's work regularly appears in the international press and has won numerous awards including the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Nature Photographer of the Year and, as a filmmaker, Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.
Learn more here.
About the organisers
FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Founded by Heli Dungler in Vienna in 1988, the organisation focuses on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, farm animals and wild animals kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones. With sustainable campaigns and projects, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term protection for suffering animals.
FOUR PAWS has been running its own campaign to end the commercial trade in captive tigers and their parts , through its campaign #RuthlessTrade.
Learn more here.
Karl Ammann Director, The Tiger Mafia
Laurin Merz Producer and Hook Film founder
Aaron Gekoski Environmental photojournalist and film-maker
Kieran Harkin ‘Head of Wild Animals in Trade’ - Four Paws
AG: Thank you everyone for watching that. Karl, are you able to just summarise for us, what position tigers find themselves in globally?
KA: We all know tigers are endangered [gives wild population figures]. Some of the populations have increased slightly in the last few years but, overall, still a pretty bleak picture for the long term survival of tigers. It doesn’t look good for the tiger in general.
AG: What has been done so far?
KH: After Covid, China announced a ban on wildlife markets. Legislation last week was quite weak. How successful have campaigns been on the ground? Not too bad Re: bear farming but not so much for big cats.
AG: Same question to Karl.
KA: In China you can own all this stuff legally once it’s at home so I find a real problem with their legislation. I use the words wind dressing and lip service for China and Viet Nam as far as addressing wildlife issues.
AG: A few people have asked, how do we go about getting a shift in consumer perception towards wildlife consumption?
KA: I saw one suggestion that people send finger nails etc. to the Chinese embassy etc.
KH: There are many advocates in the TCM fraternity against
AG: A few people have asked, does this pose a threat to Karl and his team in Asia?
LM: Yes and you can also ask Karl but he’s a tough guy, the ones whose faces you sae said it was okay and the others we blurred their faces out. Karl…
AG: Do you not worry about your own personal safety?
KA: The fact is the wildlife trade is not taken seriously in these countries. Even after all the exposure from the Washington Post article, everyone carried on as before. Only worry is I know I’m on one watch list. Next step is on black list. So slight worry is they let me in on a visa, then grab me and throw the book at me.
KA: If you went in with accreditation you would end up with a minder and you can forget about films like this.
KA: I’ve been going to places like Mong La for twenty years and I’m still sat here talking to you.
AG: Laurin, what was the biggest challenge for you?
LM: Was basically 10 years of footage. Would have liked a series but had to get it down to 90 minutes. It was challenging to have 60 terrabytes of footage from 8-10 years of work.
AG: How long did this film take you to edit?
LM: I stopped counting the days but one and a half years, something like that. We are still not completely done but now close to signing a contract with one of the two big streaming platforms for next year.
AG: Question from Virginia - Surely, the WHO needs to be held accountable for its endorsement of TCM? Kieran?
KH: Yes, true, the WHO did endorse TCM and the wildlife and NGO communities did object to that. Still an ongoing debate.
KA: Under new laws in China, this film could end up being a criminal act. It will never be shown in China.
KA: If the film helps the discussion that farming tigers etc. is not right that would be good. The tiger was named the world’s favourite animal on Animal Planet so should they be farmed. That’s a debate I feel needs to be had. CITES should not just be talking about the trade in wildlife, but also with the ethical and moral aspects too.
AG: I made a film about sharks a few years ago and someone asked, would it make any difference if sharks went extinct if we still have dolphins? How can we make the person on the street care?
KA: Someone asked me from Newsweek, do we need rhinos and I asked if they need us. It’s a debate that would be good to have.
AG: Question from Rasa, is there a plan in motion to have each country report their captive tiger numbers? Or at least in Europe or USA?
KH: Numbers not known in Europe. We need to turn off the tap and that is the commercial breeding for trade.
AG: Do the products made from tigers enter the United States? What are the legal ramifications?
KH: They enter the United States and many more. As mentioned in the film, the US has the second highest number of captive tigers in the world. [KH] better placed to comment in the European perspective. [Gives CITES trade database tiger export figures].
KA: I have asked questions about all these tigers in the United States and spoke to the directors of The Tiger King. They said there was no evidence of tiger parts going from the US to China. I think a lot more research needs to be done on that front. I doubt these people in Florida just bury them when they die if they’re worth e.g. $25,000 etc.
AG: What was your take on The Tiger King? It was such a big hit, do you think it helped tiger conservation at all?
KA: The two directors visited me about 5 years ago, I then didn’t hear from them for a long time, then they got in touch asking for footage and it turned out that would have ended up being for The Tiger King.
The education component is a lot less in demand than the entertainment component.
AG: It’s a good point and I can imagine most watching tonight are probably mostly conservationists, how do we stop preaching to the converted?
KA: We are close to signing with a big streaming service so there’s a chance it will get into that domain. As mentioned, my take is I want to take away the excuse of ‘I didn’t know’.
CITES has a toolbox where they could suspend countries like Laos. It’s not being done because political correctness seems to govern what they do a lot.
Son finding a new audience is a big challenge.
AG: What your documentary does, is convey a message very well to people who may not know much about tiger conservation.
AG: Question for Kieran - How can we know, if tigers are kept in appropriate conditions? Is there a list of zoos that are recognized by four-paws or similar trustworthy organization as appropriate?
KH: Four Paws doesn’t have such a list. The best way to see a tiger is in the wild. The questions to ask if you see tigers in captivity is, is there breeding and if so why? There are other alarm bells, as shown in Karl’s film, like interactions with big cats.
AG: Are there any places that you could recommend where people could have ethical encounters with tigers?
KH: Four Paws sanctuaries, where we have over 140 big cats, or other sanctuary type places (other than being in the wild).
AG: Karl, if you had a magic wand what would you do about China?
KA: It will not change in the near future but there are youngster who I encounter in China who are pretty gutsy.
AG: What are your major hopes for the film?
KA: I hope it will generate debate and even during this showing I have just been contacted by someone asking if the film can be shown to the Special Commission in South Africa in the context of trying to ban the export of lion bones. Most of those exports end up in China through Laos etc. and the end consumers get ripped off by buying lion bone that they think is tiger bone. But South Africa is definitely involved in terms of that criminal trade.
LM: If we can reach the biggest audience possible and if we can get people to bring respect to the animals. The best thing would be, I would be very proud if I could explain to my daughters that I did something to help the tigers.
AG: Kieran, how did you become involved and what are your hopes for the film?
KH: We’ve been interested in Karl’s work for a long time and we have mutual concern for tigers. We want to promote it as far as possible across Four Paws worldwide. We’re completely against trade in tiger parts and the film and outtakes give us ammunition to campaign across numerous issues and numerous geographical regions. In terms of the film I would just echo what Karl just said.
AG: So what is Four Paws doing?
KH: Specifically on tiger trade, we started work around 2017 / 2018, lobbying etc. and raising awareness to encourage people not to visit those places. Also a big sanctuary element to Four Paws.
AG: Why tigers then? What is it about them that touches you?
KH: Four Paws has always had an interest in big cats for around 30 years now. Tigers are also becoming a growing issue in Europe now. In 2018 we first became aware of tiger trade across Europe and to countries like Viet Nam etc. The more we looked in to it, the more gaps we saw and it just grew and grew. We’ve got a good awareness there at a political level but not in terms of change at a global level.
AG: Why do we have the sense that CITES is turning a blind eye to this? It seems they know and choose to ignore it - which effectively would mean they are useless.
KH: CITES are doing what they are mandated to do. People like Four Paws will say that’s not enough. Could they do more? Yes. Are there any better alternatives to CITES at the moment? Probably not.
AG: To what extent would the spreading of exotic animals kept as "domestic animals" lower people's guard on tigers' conservation and contribute to their extinction and to their farm breeding?
KA: I’ve looked in to the exotic pet aspect in UAE etc. Once these animals become 3 or 4 years old, they become problematic. So the question is what happens then. Sanctuaries tend to be full so a lot of those animals end up going out the back door too. Again there seems to be very little in terms of control. Also animal welfare issues.
AG: Will farm breeding be the future of big cats? This makes me really sad... And eventually, do you think that people will accept this kind of "method", because they may think that it is better to keeping alive the species, even in an artificial way, in comparison with make them risk in the natural habitat?
KA: I have my viewpoint and I have mentioned several times, I would like to see the debate. I don’t feel a tiger in a cage is really a tiger. I still haven’t seen a tiger in the wild. I have been to Ranthmabore and Sariska but still not seen one. There’s even some suggestion parks like Sariska are marketing tigers being there that aren’t.
AG: Could Instagram and the culture of wanting photos nowadays be contributing?
KA: Obviously a driving force but also young people who do object so why don’t they go on Instagram and pick up on people with tiger images etc. and have the debate on the internet. That way, maybe people will rethink going to these facilities.
AG: Will there be a campaign attached to this film?
KA: That’s what it’s all about with Kieran etc. and I hope it will be on a streaming platform for a few years. If it can be expanded with an NGO campaign though it may have a wider impact.
AG: Kieran, are you able to talk more about the campaign?
KH: Yes, we have the ‘Ruthless Trade’ campaign working to address the trade. We can eliminate the big cat trade while there is commercial trade. The evidence is overwhelming in South East Asia that places like Tiger Kingdom in the film are part of the problem. CITES Decision 14.69 says tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts or derivatives. The European Union was a big proponent of that at the time but is now a big part of the problem so we are working on that front.
AG: Have there been any successes in terms of prosecuting those involved in the tiger trade?
KH: As we see in Karl’s film, not in South East Asia and also not in the EU. Three people were arrested in the Czech Republic in 2018 but only received suspended sentences.
AG: Any final key messages? What can people do?
KH: We have a petition online people can sign and another event for policymakers in a couple of weeks.
AG: Any final comments Karl?
KA: I always find it frustrating after events like this or after the WashingtonPost article when e.g. 500 people got in touch asking how they can donate to me. I do this from my own resources. People need to go deeper, not just donate to get a good night’s sleep. I’m happy to introduce them to my fixers etc. so they can push the envelope a little bit but in the end not a single person took me up on that. So at the end of the day it’s not very easy for people to do very much of use / significance. Getting 100,000 signatures on a petition is easy but making a difference is not so easy.
AG: Okay, going to have to wrap up there. I want to thank everyone for joining us and thank you and good night.