An international wildlife group has called for severe punishments for those involved in the recent torture and slaughter of 10 tigers for the entertainment of the rich and powerful in China's southern Guangdong province.
Authorities in Guangdong's Zhanjiang city have detained 15 people in connection with the slaughter of at least 10 tigers in front of wealthy paying guests, official Chinese media reported.
Such events are a mark of social status and respect in Leizhou city, a subdivision of Zhanjiang, and the envy of those who "miss out" on them, according to a lengthy expose published this week in the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily newspaper.
"Only severe punishments meted out to those responsible under relevant laws will prevent similar things from happening in future," Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW), told RFA's Mandarin Service.
The Nanfang Daily said the practice of tiger slaughter has been going on for years in Leizhou, where it is an "open secret."
"It is the evening of March 20, on a restaurant terrace in Leizhou. A drunken local business director pulls out his phone from his trouser pocket, proudly displaying photos to his group [of friends] of a slaughtered tiger," the report said.
It said one tiger at least had been killed by prolonged prodding in the mouth with electric batons, citing an incident two years ago.
Reports said the tigers were likely transported under sedation to Guangdong after being raised on illegal farms for their body parts, which are used in some forms of traditional Chinese medicine.
Fueled by corruption
Wu Lihong, an environmental activist based in the eastern province of Jiangsu, said official corruption often fuels such illegal practices where endangered species are concerned.
"There is a great demand for such products among corrupt officials," Wu said. "Some people give them to officials as gifts, or even bribes."
"[It is part of] their ambition to get rich and win promotion."
According to the Nanfang Daily, the slaughter is normally carried out by an experienced butcher.
The bones of a tiger are used to brew wine and as ingredients for other medicines, as they are believed to strengthen the human body.
Such wines and medicines change hands for up to 14,000 yuan (U.S.$2,260) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) on the black market, while tiger meat fetches around 1,000 yuan (U.S. $160) per kilogram, the paper said.
It is illegal in China to raise a tiger in captivity without a permit, and using or trading in tiger products has been banned since 1993.
The Leizhou peninsula was once an ideal habitat for tigers, to the extent that the government organized specialized tiger-hunting teams during the early decades of communist rule in China, which killed as many as 31 tigers from 1959-1965, the Nanfang Daily said.
The aim was to "ensure the safety of people, and of production," it said.
The hunting program and rapid deforestation led to a rapid decline in the population, and there have been no wild tiger sightings in Leizhou since the 1960s, the paper said.
Ge Gabriel said there is a general lack of interest at local level in implementing legislation that is already in place to protect endangered species.
IFAW is currently working with parliamentary advisers in China to tighten up existing legislation.
But she said Beijing's approach is still heavily focused on how endangered species might be used, and less on their general protection.
"For example, the rules state that ivory that is a certain number of years old may be traded, and that products from tigers and bears raised in captivity may be sold," Ge Gabriel said.
"This has provided an opportunity that people are able to exploit," she said.
"What's more, consumers themselves are confused, and aren't sure which products are illegal."
Ge Gabriel, who set up China's first raptor rescue center, launched an anti-poaching operation to protect the Tibetan antelope, also helped to draft China's first Animal Welfare Law.
She has previously campaigned against a worrying trend among the country's super-rich, who are willing to pay huge sums for stuffed 'specimens' of farm-raised endangered species.
The customers driving the trade in endangered species, where enormous profits are available, are typically newly rich Chinese business people with low levels of education, she told RFA in an in-depth interview last year.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.