A YouTube video won the internet when it showed an ambush of tigers living up to their collective name as they took on a remote drone. In fact, the footage was so well-received that it even reached the media. But did the playful images disguise a macabre fate in store for the big cats?
The video emerged from China in February, 2017, and proved to be an instant viral hit on social media. The footage was captured in the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park, located in Heilongjiang province, where the rare animals are kept on display.
The video shows a group of the portly big cats lounging around their enclosure. Though they look sedate, their disposition changes when they spot something. A film crew has sent an aerial drone to record them from above. When they spot it, they spring to life in pursuit.
Not only is the drone chased, but it is eventually caught by a young cat who bats it out of the air like a toy. The machine subsequently becomes a plaything for the successful hunters. They only give up on their prize when it starts smoking.
Due to poaching and habitat loss, Siberian tigers have been classed as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The video offered an excellent chance to witness the power and hunting prowess of these rare creatures. Indeed, it’s easy to see why it became popular so quickly.
Animal lovers everywhere watched the video, and within five days it had received over 3 million views. In fact, its popularity was such that the footage was even reported on by news outlets such as NPR and the BBC. The internet loves cat videos and, initially, viewer responses were light-hearted.
But then people began to question the video. Some were curious as to why the tigers were so plump. “Don’t worry if they seem overweight,” the uploader’s description explained. “Liu Dan, chief engineer with the Siberian Tiger Park, said they weigh within their normal range.”
“The park increased the tigers’ food intake to keep out the cold in winter,” the description continued. “It won’t be as necessary to feed them as much during spring as it is in winter. Experts predict that they will once again be lean in about two months.”
However, doubts remained about the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park. One of those asking questions was John R. Platt, a freelance journalist who specializes in environmental issues and at-risk species. Platt has frequently had his work published in publications such as Audubon and the highly-respected Scientific American magazine.
Platt made his case the day after the video of the Siberian Tiger Park went viral. On February 23, 2017, the journalist linked to the news coverage on Twitter, where he questioned the park’s authenticity as a sanctuary. “This must have been at one of China’s tiger farms,” he wrote.
“The tigers killed the drone, but the tigers themselves are still destined for slaughter.” Platt’s point stemmed from the sheer number of tigers on view at the park. “China has an estimated 7 wild tigers left,” he reported. “Many more in this video = obviously a tiger farm.”
Although the difference between a tiger park and a farm isn’t necessarily immediately obvious, the comparison is stark. Tiger parks are a refuge for animals, to keep them safe and aid conservation. Tiger farms have almost the exact opposite purpose.
In fact, while they might operate under the guise of a breeding program, their goal is actually to provide tiger products for sale. The process is highly illegal, but it’s driven by the demand for tiger products to be used in traditional Chinese medicine. Tiger farms can be found across Asia.
According to Platt, the tigers will probably “be turned into bone and wine.” This wasn’t the first time that the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park has been caught up in controversy either. In fact, Big Cat Rescue brought attention to a disturbing article written about the park in 2010.
They found many of the details contained in the article troubling. According to the reporter who wrote the piece, “Visitors have the unique opportunity to sentence hapless farm creatures” to death at the park – as a tiger’s dinner. They also noted, “[Products] of interest include a giant fish tank of tiger bone wine – RMB 780 for a flask.” The writer didn’t comment further on the presence of the illegal tiger product in what was ostensibly a conservation center.
Similarly, other media sources have reported on questionable practices within the “Jurassic Park style” compound. For example, in 2014, a reporter for McClatchy noted that they had “found animals in deplorable conditions” and spotted tiger bone wine openly on sale by street vendors in the city.
Conservationists have taken a firm stance against tiger farms and the Harbin Park’s involvement in the sale of tiger products. “[China’s wildlife law] effectively encourages people to breed tigers and other animals and use their parts for commerce,” Toby Zhang, an Animals Asia Foundation researcher, told McClatchy.
Some have claimed that the parks make little profit and hence have turned to selling animal products to pay for their overheads. Others – including Asian officials – have even argued that farming endangered animals increases their numbers, to the benefit of the species. However, conservationists strongly contest this, pointing to evidence that harvesting captive animals provides no assistance at all to the protection of their species.
Among those critical of the illegal farming industry is the Environmental Investigation Agency in London. One of its campaigners, Debbie Banks, said that the numbers speak for themselves. “If you look around Southeast Asia, you will find that countries with tiger farmers have fewer wild tigers than those that do not,” she told McClatchy.
Perhaps the video of those chubby tigers wasn’t so funny after all. “These tigers appear very obese,” the Born Free Foundation’s president, Will Travers, told the Metro. “[It’s] indicative of a wholly inappropriate and unnatural diet, woefully inadequate opportunities for natural behavior and exercise and the constants of captivity. In my view, this is not funny or ‘cute.’ These animals are ill.”