Captive tiger in Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, Laos

Footage reveals criminal-run tiger ‘farms’ in Laos have actually been expanded, not shut down

New covert footage released by EIA shows the huge expansion of captive-breeding facilities in Laos for tigers and bears.

The captive animal populations are estimated to have doubled and are kept in rows of concrete enclosures.

This growth is in direct contravention of an international ruling that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products and of the Government of Laos’ own commitment to shut down such facilities.

Delegates are convening in Lyon, France this week for the 74th Meeting of the Standing Committee to CITES and EIA has been calling for trade suspensions on Laos until the Government shows it is willing to take action to end tiger farming.

The footage shot in December 2021 shows the new tiger and bear farm at the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ), in Bokeo Province, Laos, which is 80 per cent owned and run by the Hong Kong-registered Kings Romans Group, a company headed by the Zhao Wei organised crime organisation. The Laos Government is, however, involved in the management of the GTSEZ, which is subject to the laws of Laos.

EIA previously exposed the GTSEZ as a lawless ‘wildlife supermarket’ in its 2015 report Sin City.

Debbie Banks, EIA’s Tiger and Wildlife Crime Campaign Leader, said: “This footage shows how the organised crime group clearly has no intention of ending its business – and that the Government of Laos is egregiously failing to meet its international commitments to end tiger trade and tiger farming.

“This is clearly not a zoo – there is no conservation or educational value in keeping tigers and bears like this and it is plainly a commercial tiger and bear farm.”

Captive tiger in the GTSEZ, December 2021 (c) EIA

However, at the meeting in Lyon today (8 March), Laos was once again given a reprieve.

With approximately 4,000 wild tigers remaining, poaching for trade in their body parts continues to be a major threat to the survival of the species in the wild.

Since 2000, more than 2,940 tigers have been seized in trade, most of them from the wild, and the tiger populations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have gone extinct.

Trade in parts and derivatives of ‘farmed’ tigers perpetuates the desirability of tiger parts, increases the accessibility and perceived acceptability of using tiger parts and further stimulates demand for them.

Banks added: “Contrary to the arguments of proponents of tiger farming and trade that the practice will relieve pressure on wild populations, wild tigers continue to be poached and trafficked to supply the demand it spurs.”

In 2007, Parties to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided tigers “should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives”, including domestic trade. Countries with tiger farms are supposed to have phased them out.

Instead, tiger farming and trade has continued in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and now in South Africa, with more than 8,600 captive tigers throughout these countries at risk of entering trade.

Undercover EIA investigations in the GTSEZ in 2014 and 2015 identified 38 Asiatic black bears and 26 of the 35 tigers which staff claimed were held there. Tiger skins, teeth and meat, tiger bone wine made from the farm’s tigers, bear paw soup and bear gall bladders were among the illegal wildlife products on sale in shops and restaurants at the GTSEZ.

In 2018, the US Department of Treasury designated Zhao Wei and affiliates as a Transnational Criminal Organisation for human, wildlife and drugs trafficking, money laundering and bribery.

Captive bears in the GTSEZ, December 2021 (c) EIA

Also in 2018, the then Prime Minister of Laos, Thongloun Sisoulith, ordered the country’s five tiger farms to close, including the one at the GTSEZ – but he created a major loophole which allowed them to convert to ‘zoos’.

Banks said: “Some have refused and some are zoos in name only, but they’re all still run by the same criminal enterprises as before. Trade in tigers from these facilities has continued, with seizures, arrests and convictions in Vietnam of tigers and traders connected to the Laos farms.

“It’s disappointing that the Standing Committee has not brought forward trade suspensions at this meeting. There are specific actions that the Laos Government could have taken towards ending tiger farming and trade, despite COVID travel restrictions. We now expect to hear progress on these by SC75, later this year.”

EIA has identified the following simple actions that could be taken by Laos:

  • immediately establish the stripe pattern database from the tiger farm audit photographs;
  • conduct inspections to verify the current captive tiger population against the 2019 baseline using the stripe pattern database and investigate any anomalies;
  • initiate collaboration with Vietnamese authorities regarding seizures of tigers known and suspected to have originated in Laos, including using the stripe pattern database and, when available, the DNA profiles of audited tigers;
  • suspend the breeding of tigers in all captive facilities;
  • convene a meeting of an advisory group on tiger farm phase-out, including organisations with expertise in managing captive tigers for non-commercial purposes;
  • high-level intervention from the Lao Government to assert jurisdiction and take enforcement action against criminal operations at the GTSEZ.