BOKEO PROVINCE, Laos — The tiger paced back and forth in its cage, groaning mournfully. A second big cat slept soundly in the corner, while a third stared blankly at the bars.
Next to this cage was another containing three more tigers, and after that three more cages: a line of small pens, each holding at least one cat. Most likely, none had long to live.
The tigers were property of the Kings Romans Group, which operates a casino here, along with hotels, a shooting range, a cockfighting and bullfighting ring, a Chinatown-themed shopping center, and this shabby zoo.
Ten years ago, the Hong Kong-based company signed a lease with the Laotian government to develop this 12-square-mile plot in northwestern Bokeo Province, just across the Mekong River from Thailand. It’s called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.
Most businesses in the duty-free complex are owned and staffed by Chinese citizens and patronized by a predominantly Chinese clientele. Many are drawn here by the promise of vices not as easily found back home, including products made from exotic animals like tigers.
Conservationists maintain that this zoo is actually a farm raising animals for slaughter, and that it plays a significant role in perpetuating the illegal wildlife trade, swapping tigers with similar operations in Thailand and illegally butchering animals for their bones, meat and parts.
These facilities are part of a contraband industry whose profitability by some estimates is surpassed only by the global trade in drugs and arms, and by human trafficking.
Few tourists were present at Kings Romans during a recent visit. The ghost-town feel was reinforced by boarded-up shops, half-finished construction sites and posters advertising events that had long since come and gone.
But restaurants at Kings Romans still offered expensive plates of bear paw, pangolin (an endangered scaly mammal) and sautéed tiger meat, which can be paired with tiger wine, a grain-based concoction in which the cats’ penises, bones or entire skeletons are soaked for months.
When a group of foreigners showed up at the God of Wealth, Kings Romans’ fanciest restaurant, the suspicious proprietor told their translator, “You can eat here, but do not ask for the special jungle menu” — the menu offering wildlife options.
Nevertheless, the staff offered tiger wine for $20 a shot glass, and served a bear’s paw to patrons at a nearby table. In May, a photographer for The New York Times who visited the restaurant was offered plates of tiger meat for $45.
Nearby, half a dozen jewelry and pharmaceutical shops displayed exorbitantly priced tiger teeth and claws, as well as rhino-horn carvings and shavings, elephant skin and ivory.
“The place is just a mess,” said Debbie Banks, of the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency in London. “Pretty much anything goes.”
In 2015, Ms. Banks and her colleagues, along with the nonprofit group Education for Nature-Vietnam, reported that meals, medicine and jewelry made from numerous protected species — including tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses, bears and elephants — were openly sold in the special economic zone.
Their documentation spurred the Laotian government to raid some businesses here and to burn a few tiger skins on television. But Ms. Banks said little had changed since that “cosmetic effort.”
Like the rest of the complex, the Kings Romans zoo was largely deserted save for animals kept in cages. A woman and her young daughter wandered in to look at the bears. Many showed signs of captivity-induced stress, including uncontrolled headbanging. Staff members were nowhere to be found.
Approximately 700 tigers live on farms in Laos. Thousands more are believed to be kept throughout Southeast Asia, and an additional 5,000 to 6,000 are housed in over 200 breeding centers in China. Fewer than 4,000 of the big cats remain in the wild; farmed tigers now far outnumber total wild populations.
At an international conference on the endangered species trade last fall, Laotian government officials acknowledged a growing problem with wildlife farms and committed themselves to closing down the country’s tiger farms. So far, little has changed.
One source who works closely with the government, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said that some Laotian politicians remained deeply involved in the farms and that the country’s forestry department lacked the authority to shut them down.
Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has singled out Laos as an international hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, saying in 2015 it was “quite clear officials are profiting.” Laotian government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Treaty Limits Breeding
According to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, a treaty to which China and all Southeast Asian nations are signers, tigers are to be bred only for conservation — not for their parts, and not on a commercial scale that does not benefit wild tigers.
“Farming tigers for trade confuses consumers and stimulates demand,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “The increased market demand for tiger parts also fuels poaching of tigers in the wild, because wildlife consumers prefer animals caught in the wild.”
In Laos and several other Asian countries, conservationists have compiled ample evidence that many zoos and farms serve as fronts for commercial breeding.
In 2016, Tiger Temple in Thailand made headlines when monks there were accused of abusing tigers and selling them into the illegal wildlife trade. Eventually, 40 dead cubs were discovered in a freezer, along with pelts and other wildlife products. Temple representatives said that the bodies and parts did not prove wrongdoing.
Thailand has some 1,450 tigers in captivity, the majority of which are kept at popular attractions like Tiger Temple, where tourists pay to take photographs and play with cubs and young adults.
When the tigers reach sexual maturity and can no longer be handled safely, they often disappear, sold on the black market for up to $50,000, according to Karl Ammann, a Kenya-based investigative filmmaker who is making a documentary about the tiger farming industry.
Conservationists also have accused tiger farms in China — two of which are supported by government investment — of illegal activity.
Chinese law permits some tiger skins to be traded legally, although tiger bone has been banned since 1993. But in 2013 Ms. Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency and her colleagues found that farms were stockpiling tiger bones to make wine and that skins from wild tigers were sold as being from captive-bred tigers.
After inquiries from The Times, Meng Xianlin, executive director-general of the Chinese Cites management authority, declined to be interviewed. Several other Chinese officials did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Past violators often re-enter the wildlife farming business. Construction has already begun on a zoo next door to Tiger Temple. Officials in Vietnam recently granted permission for the wife of Pham Van Tuan, a twice-convicted tiger trafficker, to import 24 tigers from the Czech Republic “for conservation purposes.”
Vuong Tien Manh, deputy director of Vietnam’s Cites management authority, said in an email that Vietnam had seized a number of frozen tigers and tiger bones over the past five years, most of which were suspected to have originated from Laos.
He added that Vietnam’s policies did not permit commercial breeding of tigers, but the country has some 130 tigers in captivity. All tiger farms are strictly monitored, Mr. Manh said, no matter who the owners are.
An estimated 10,000 bears are legally kept on Chinese farms for their bile, an ingredient in traditional medicine that is collected through a tube permanently implanted in the animals’ gall bladders, or through a hole in their abdomens.
Countless other species — crocodiles, porcupines, pythons, deer and more — are also farmed throughout China and Southeast Asia.
Some proponents, including government officials, believe that such facilities should be legal and encouraged, arguing that they relieve pressure to hunt wild animals by satiating demand with captive-bred animals.
Others say there is no evidence to back this assertion. “I can’t think of any species in Southeast Asia that benefits from commercial captive breeding,” said Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia regional director for Traffic, a nonprofit wildlife trade-monitoring group.
Scott Roberton, the director of counter-wildlife trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, added that the risks associated with legalizing trade in farmed tigers and other endangered species are the same as those associated for decades with the ivory trade.
“Legal trade stimulates demand, confuses law enforcement efforts, and opens a huge opportunity for laundering illegal products, which is why ivory markets are now being closed globally,” he said.
“There just isn’t the capacity within these countries to manage a legal trade in a watertight way,” Dr. Roberton said.
A 2008 investigation by Vietnamese officials and the Wildlife Conservation Society found that about half of 78 wildlife farms surveyed regularly launder animals caught in the wild. In 2016, a study of 26 Vietnamese wildlife farms found that all engaged in laundering.
The pet trade is also a problem. Indonesia annually exports over four million reptiles and small mammals labeled captive-bred — including thousands shipped weekly to the United States. But virtually all are caught in the wild, according to Dr. Shepherd.
“I’ve been to almost every reptile farm in Indonesia, and none have breeding facilities,” he said. “Wildlife dealers are running circles around everyone. It’s a joke.”
Though modern wildlife farming emerged in the 1990s and has only grown in popularity, wild populations of farmed species have continued to plummet, Dr. Shepherd said.
Tigers, for example, are effectively extinct in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, while just seven to 50 remain in the wild in China.
“No matter how many tigers are farmed, we still have wild tigers getting killed,” he said.
What Becomes of the Tigers?
Heeding these arguments, Laotian government representatives attending a major Cites meeting last September announced their intention to end tiger farming in their country.
International nongovernmental organizations are advising Laotian authorities on how to carry through with that announcement, but there has been no progress to date.
In April, Vietnamese reporters discovered a tiger farm in Laos on a main highway near the center of Lak Sao, a town near the border with Vietnam. Conservationists later confirmed that it might hold an additional 200 animals.
There are some countries in Southeast Asia that are equipped to combat criminal networks, and some that are still struggling,” said Giovanni Broussard, Southeast Asia regional coordinator for the Global Program for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime.
“Laos,” he said, “is in the category of those that are still struggling.”
Though most tiger farms in Laos do not allow visitors, conservationists fear that owners will simply shift to a model embraced in Thailand, in which petting zoos serve as a front for illegal trade.
In 2002, Vietnam faced a similar dilemma when it made bear farming and bile sales illegal. Fifteen years later, around 1,200 bears still live with their original owners.
Many are kept in horrific conditions — in cages scarcely larger than their bodies, suffering from rampant disease and lacking adequate food and water — and their bile continues to be collected illegally.
Animals Asia runs a rehabilitation center near Hanoi that houses 160 bears rescued from the trade, but the center has permission to keep only 200 animals. Even if that cap were eliminated, however, the group lacks the funds and space to care for all of Vietnam’s remaining captive bears.
“Obviously, we can’t do this all ourselves,” said Tuan Bendixsen, Animals Asia’s Vietnam director. “The government must take responsibility for their wildlife.”
As Laos ponders how to responsibly close its tiger farms, China is moving in the opposite direction. Since 1992, it has been petitioning Cites to permit trade in farmed tiger products.
When Chinese representatives lobbied for this change once again at the most recent Cites meeting, the proposal was turned down.
Conservationists believe that international pressure may be crucial to persuading Asian governments to close tiger, bear and other wildlife farms, but that strategy’s effectiveness is compromised by an awkward fact: An estimated 5,000 tigers are held in backyards, petting zoos and even truck stops across the United States.
While those animals are predominantly kept as pets, they compromise negotiations with other countries on this issue, said Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser at the World Wildlife Fund.
“When fingers are pointed at China about their tiger farms, they tend to point the finger back at the U.S. and say, ‘They have as many tigers as we have, why are you not criticizing them?’” she said.
“The priority is closing the tiger farms in Asia,” Ms. Henry said, “but the U.S. needs to set a strong standard, and that starts with cleaning up the situation in our own backyard.”