• Bad Medicine
Bad medicine
Simon Parry reports.   Pictures by Richard Jones
Tiger-based remedies have long been revered in China. But as the country's economic boom continues, increasing demand for such products has led to the animals being bred on an unprecedented scale, in turn pushing wild beasts ever closer to extinction.

It´s feeding time at azoo in southwest China and a huddle of tourists, some of them clasping young children, peer down from a concrete walkway into a shabby grass enclosure. Standing bewildered and alone in the centre of the enclosure, a calf is gazing wide-eyed towards a steel gate at the perimeter.

The gate clanks open. A magnificent, 250kg Siberian tiger jogs out and begins lazily circling the terrified calf. For a few seconds, the calf is frozen to the spot. Then it suddenly bolts towards the fence in helpless panic.

In two bounds, the tiger is on the calf´s back, using giant paws to flail deep wounds into the flanks of its "prey" and drag it to the ground. Onlookers whoop, laugh and clap. Children shriek in shock and excitement. One six-year-old girl buries her head in her mother's coat and sobs. Blood seeps out across the mud and turf as the tiger rolls the calf over and begins to tear out its throat before a tractor trundles into the enclosure, forcing the tiger back behind the gate. Workers scoop up the animal, its legs still twitching, to be carved up and shared among the zoo's tigers.

The show is over and the small crowd shuffles away to the next attraction. The tiger's five minutes of make-believe hunting are through - and it is returned to the harsh reality of the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Park in Guilin, where the real prey is its huge collection of tigers. Confined in row after row of small concrete enclosures, with eight animals in each, the tigers are bred at a rate of 100 a year - not to entertain tourists or to conserve the species but to supply an illicit trade in bones and parts that generates hundreds of millions of yuan a year.

China has signed international wildlife treaties that ban all trade in tiger parts. But the Xiongsen park, just an hour's flight from Hong Kong, operates in a grey area, using the bones of animals it claims have died naturally in captivity to produce "medicinal" wine.

Posing as Chinese medicine traders, we visited the park and found the supply of tigers is so systematic, it is difficult to imagine it relies on natural deaths alone.

Our reporter also gained access to a secret factory, in remote countryside 320km from the park, where the shocking scale of the trade became apparent. Here, 600 tiger skeletons were being steeped in alcohol to produce 200,000 bottles of wine to sell across China for up to 900 yuan per half-litre bottle.