HONG KONG / HARBIN, CHINA – At the Siberian Tiger Park, in the icy Chinese city of Harbin, visitors can learn about the facility's successful breeding program and buy chicken carcasses to launch them at about 20 tigers pacing the snow-covered ground of their pens.

At the gates of the park, a store sells alcohol soaked in tiger bones at a price of up to $ 1,000 a bottle.

China has made significant progress in protecting wildlife in recent years, including banning ivory and planning to open one of the world's largest reserves of wild tigers in the north. is from China in 2020.

But he also has huge interests, focused on wildlife profits and trade, that may jeopardize progress on protecting threatened big cats, environmentalists said.

"The sector occupies a strategic position that is concentrated in the least developed regions of the country where poverty reduction remains a top priority for local authorities," said Houston-based policy expert Peter Li. at Humane Society International.

Operators of tiger farms have told the media that without the ability to sell bones, skins and meat, they would not be able to cover the high costs associated with managing their parks. and key conservation plans approved by the national government.

After pressuring some ranchers, the Chinese State Council announced in October that it would replace a 1993 trade ban on tiger bones and rhinoceros horn, opening exceptions under "special circumstances". , including medical research.

But in November, Beijing postponed the move after many protests from conservation groups who fear that any resumption of licit trade of parts of tiger will sound the death knell of the species by allowing to whiten parts of animals wild in livestock products.

Ecologists also claim that no Chinese-born captive tiger has been released into the wild and that there is no scientific or medical need to use rhinoceros horn. and tiger bone in traditional Chinese medicine.

Nevertheless, the lifting of the ban is supported by the powerful forest and grassland administration of China.

"If rhinoceros horns and tiger bones can be used for medicinal purposes and their use does not harm the two endangered species in the wild, why should we oppose them?" Tang Xiaoping, a leader of Administration was quoted in the same statement. run the China Daily newspaper.

The Forest and Grasslands Administration has not responded to several requests for comments.

In the Siberian Tiger Park, the tiger bone wine is sold openly and is recognized by the Forestry Bureau and the Ministry of Commerce, according to a sales representative in the store. However, the park is not allowed to promote it publicly because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the sales representative. Park officials declined to comment on the recording.

The wine, whose price ranges from 280 to 6,888 yuan (40 to 1,003 dollars), is presented in large windows and sold on the Chinese network WeChat, similar to Twitter.

Parks officials, officials and conservation experts said tiger pens had accumulated stocks of skin and animal bones in freezers, with the goal of selling them to medical purposes in the future.

Conservation groups estimate that there are now more than 6,500 breeding tigers in some 200 facilities in China and around 40 breeding rhinos. Chinese media claim that tiger bones can yield between 5,000 and 9,000 yuan ($ 727 to $ 1,308) per kilo – tens of thousands of dollars per animal.

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that there are only about 40 to 50 wild tigers in China out of about 3,900 worldwide.

The debate over the lifting of the ban on the tiger trade comes as China seeks to develop its traditional medicine industry, which accounts for about $ 50 billion a year, and position it as a key pillar of its business. strategy "A belt, a road".

The World Health Organization is to recognize for the first time next year traditional Chinese medicine in its global medical compendium, according to the Nature International Journal of Science, citing the ruling body.

The Siberian Tiger Park has more than 1,300 tigers spread over three sites. Selling tiger wine is one way to subsidize the park's daily expenses, said one of the park's tour guides.

Currently, visitor fees are the primary source of revenue for parks, as are government grants. The ticket price is 100 yuan and visitors can pay extra to feed the tigers. A meat menu displays the prices of a chicken living at 120 yuan, while a raw cutlet costs 10 yuan.

Liu Dan, chief engineer of the Northeast Tiger Forest Park, near the border between China and Russia, said in a documentary broadcast on CCTV in November that its 1,000 or so tigers each eat about 3,000 yuan ( $ 435) chicken.

Liu, who has been raising tigers for over 30 years and has repeatedly called for the lifting of the ban on the sale of tiger parties, told the media that the tax breaks granted by the government do not include were not sufficient for the park to be financially viable. Currently, parks derive most of their money from visitors.

Liu and the park refused to comment on this article.

Chinese medicine experts say that there is no need to use tiger bones and rhinoceros horn in the treatments because substitutes are readily available.

The tiger bone, for example, is often used to treat arthritis and joint pain, but there are dozens of other herbs with similar properties, said Eric Karchmer, head of medicine at Dao Labs.

Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Medicine, said that a reversal of the ban would create a daunting challenge for the Chinese medicine community.

"We stopped using it 25 years ago. We do not understand. I do not think the Chinese medicine community and health professionals would understand. "