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New TV Campaign Aims to Save Vietnam's Wild Tigers

FILE - Two-month-old Indochinese tiger cubs play with their mother inside their cage at the Hanoi Zoo, March 2007.

FILE - Two-month-old Indochinese tiger cubs play with their mother inside their cage at the Hanoi Zoo, March 2007.

Conservationists in Vietnam have launched a new public service announcement aimed at tackling the use of tiger paste as an impressive gift. While the move has been widely welcomed, some say it is already too late for the country’s last wild tigers.

“Using tiger bone paste won’t impress anyone, don’t embarrass yourself” - is the message of a new public service announcement released by Vietnamese conservation group Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) this week.

The announcement - to be broadcast on national television - depicts a new corporate board member giving his colleagues gifts of tiger bone paste during a meeting, which they leave on the table in disgust.

"In Vietnam we use tiger bone glue as a kind of gift to give people you want to impress as a form of status symbol. Approaching television stations is a good way to spread the message to the largest number of people," explained ENV spokeswoman Le Mai Hanh.

Tiger bone paste - a traditional medicine - is made by boiling the bones until they form a glue-like substance. It is used to treat joint problems and is believed to improve sexual performance. The paste can be sold for up to $1500 per 100 grams. Tiger parts are also used to make tiger wine, and are sold as decorations.

ENV has tackled consumption of wildlife products before, but this is one of the first to single out tiger products. The consumption of rare wildlife is rampant in the country. It is known as a destination country for rhino horn, used as a hangover cure. The country’s last rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

Dr. Nguyen Xuan Huong, former chairman of the Vietnam Traditional Medicine Association, welcomed ENV’s strategy. He said there is no evidence to prove that tiger bone paste is an effective medicine. But people still buy it as a form of status symbol.

He says the consumption of tiger bone medicine has been increasing over the last few years, but he believes much of it is fake.

ENV says there could be as few as 30 tigers left in the wild. But Dr. Naomi Doak, Greater Mekong Program Coordinator for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, says the situation could be even worse.

"Largely, even if there were that many, they are scattered over such an area and a lot of them are in border areas so they are kind of cross between Laos and Vietnam or Cambodia and Vietnam for example. I think we kind of broadly accept that ecologically, tigers are extinct in Vietnam. That means the populations are not in a position to sustain themselves," said Doak.

Farming tigers for commercial purposes is illegal in Vietnam, but a number are allowed to operate as conservation facilities. But Doak says none of the animals bred there are released back into the wild, thus, the reasons for keeping the animals are dubious.

"There’s no real reason at the moment for those facilities to produce cubs other than those cubs will remain in captivity for the rest of their life because there’s no habitat to reintroduce them to and tigers have never been, at the moment, successfully reintroduced from captive facilities where they’ve been bred into the wild. The conservation value at some level has to be questioned," said Doak.

Trading in tigers from captive facilities sustains demand for tiger products, she says. Wild tigers are also targeted because feeding and taking care of captive tigers is very expensive.

Doak says sending a direct message to consumers is a good strategy. At the same time, if Vietnam wants to save one of its most iconic species, the government needs to do more to monitor and regulate tigers kept in captivity.