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The EU is trading in dead tigers

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAMUEL STOLTON

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The EU is trading in dead tigers

In a ramshackle barn somewhere in rural Vietnam, a balding chicken stumbles over a giant heap of chalky tiger bones. Outside, an enormous steel pot sits atop a brick fire pit. It contains a boiling liquid with an oaky, caramel-like colour and the texture of syrup. The vapour is putrid to the tongue.

The mixture is known in Vietnam as ‘tiger bouillon’ and is regarded as a medicinal delicacy in the Far East. The principle ingredient of tiger bone is sourced from far and wide, with an increasing supply emanating from Europe. Prices on the market stalls of Vietnam reach up to an equivalent of €60 per gram.

In the early hours of Monday July 16th, 2018, an expert law enforcement squad were readying themselves to embark on a nation-wide siege on premises across the Czech Republic, in an operation that involved 175 customs officers, 40 police officers, 6 inspectors, 2 veterinarians and one animal welfare specialist.

One armed dispatch was sent that morning to investigate a farm on the outskirts of Prague, managed by Ludvik Berousek – member of a famous Czech circus family, who had been running the country’s largest tiger breeding facility, supplying big cats to zoos and touring circuses.

Adorned in military-grade attire, the Czech special police operatives stormed through to a backroom located in the innards of the facility. There, splayed out across a cold concrete floor in pools of red-black blood, lay the body of a big and beautiful tiger. As a later autopsy showed, the animal had been shot in the throat, and, in a spasm of agony and confusion, had gouged out one of its eyes to try and stop the pain.

The discovery unveiled the source of an intricate international network of tiger dealerships, scaling the Czech Republic all the way to the Far East, with tiger-based products appearing in the form of soaps, bouillons and medicines on the streets of Vietnam as well as in Vietnamese shops across Europe.

But the Czech Republic’s so-called ‘Operation Trophy’ in 2018 was just the beginning of a larger exposé of Europe’s illicit trade in tigers.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

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A recent report published by the international animal welfare organisation, Four Paws, found that EU member states are continuing to import and export tigers and tiger parts for commercial purposes. As part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which the European Union is a member, this type of commercial activity is banned.

Between 2014 and 2018, live tigers were commercially exported outside the bloc in double figures, from countries such as Belgium, Malta and Germany, while the Netherlands is one of Europe’s biggest culprits in the exportation of tiger parts – its primary market being China.

“The Czech Republic is absolutely an epicentre, due to the country housing Europe’s largest Vietnamese diaspora,” Kieran Harkin, International Head of Wild Animal Campaigns at Four Paws, told me.

“However, unfortunately the commercial trade in tigers is widespread across Europe. Despite the Netherlands having progressive laws on animal protection, the country has higher than normal numbers in permitting the illegal trade of tiger parts, particularly going to China.”

Harkin added that the data garnered by Four Paws was only partial, due to the fact that not all EU member states responded to the organisation’s Freedom of Information requests.

“Only 13 EU member states responded to us. Nobody truly knows how many tigers there are in Europe,” he said. “Moreover, from the data we received, there were substantial discrepancies with the official numbers of tigers in Europe that CITES were aware of.”

“This shows the vast majority of EU authorities do not know how many tigers are within their jurisdictions, and they have no clue as to the extent of the commercial trade.”

In Brussels meanwhile, the high numbers in the trade of tiger parts between the Netherlands and China is baffling to many. In this vein, Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp recently pressed the European Commission for more answers.

“In terms of the high quantity of tiger parts being exported from the Netherlands to China, there are no clear answers as to why this is,” she told me. “But it’s evident from Four Paws’ report that the whole illicit marketplace is out of control, and it’s very disturbing that there are backdoors in our legislation that allow this trade to happen.”

Hazekamp is by no means alone in Brussels with regards to those calling for a tougher European stance on the commercial trade of tigers.

In 2016, the European Commission adopted an EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking, which aims to tackle illegal trade, but Member of the Parliament’s Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, Martin Hojsík, has recently been calling for broader rules.

“It’s not just the illegal trade in tigers that we should look at, but we should also focus on restrictions to the legal trade as well,” he told me over the phone. “Otherwise loopholes emerge which undermine the survival of tigers in the wild, in addition to worsening the conditions and welfare of captive tigers.”

“We have to be more restrictive generally in the trade of endangered species.”

In March, ink dried on the European Council’s approval of an ambitious new Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Vietnam, which will eventually eliminate 99% of customs duties between the two parties.

The European Parliament rubberstamped the plans in February, and also called for animal welfare provisions to be guaranteed in the agreement. Despite this, the pan-European animal advocacy organisation, Eurogroup for Animals, fears that the “agreement may open the way to an increase of imports of lower animal welfare products,” including animal skins.

If any picture is to prevail from the EU’s underground-market in the tiger trade, it is that the industry remains a black box – an immeasurable storehouse of bones, skins and skeletons, cloistered in rural corners of the continent, away from the prying eyes of police authorities.

For Four Paws’ Harkin, however, the lack of information with regards to the extent of the problem is telling enough.

“No data is a form of data,” he said. “It demonstrates that there is no pan-European overview of the situation and that authorities need to start acting in order to stamp out breaches.”

“We want to see the EU turn off the taps on the commercial trade in tigers. We need to see an end to the Joe Exotics of Europe.”


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.