Chinese tiger breeders came under renewed scrutiny Tuesday when wildlife officials confirmed that a team of investigating journalists had been served tiger meet at a breeder's restaurant.
The report came on the eve of what was expected to be a heated debate on tiger conservation Wednesday at a meeting of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.
Journalists with British television network ITN visited Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Garden in Guilin, China, in February and sent some of the meat they were offered to a Chinese laboratory. DNA tests established it was tiger meat, ITN reported.
The farm's owner called the analysis fraudulent, but CITES senior enforcement officer, John Sellar, told delegates Tuesday that a respected U.S. laboratory had reviewed the Chinese test and said its findings "appear to be valid."
"We expect the issue to generate significant debate over whether China should continue allowing unlimited breeding by private owners, who then claim financial pressure and push to reopen trade to pay for their operations," said Steven Broad, executive director of wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC.
On Wednesday, the CITES conference will discuss a policy paper on tiger conservation that calls for more cross-border cooperation on tiger conservation. International trade in tigers and tiger parts is banned by CITES.
Conservationists fear that Chinese authorities are being pushed by wealthy investors in tiger farms to end the 14-year domestic ban on tiger product sales.
Such a move would be disastrous for the world's estimated 5,000 wild tigers, the conservationists say.
"It would mean the end of the species," said Susan Lieberman, of wildlife lobby group WWF.
"They have done a great job on reducing demand (in China)," Lieberman said. "People in China know it is illegal now. The moment it becomes legal you will stimulate increased demand."
Tiger products are used in Chinese traditional medicines, but many in the industry have found alternatives since the ban came into force.
However, a perception that wild tiger parts are more potent than those of farmed tigers, and the fact that poaching tigers is far cheaper than rearing them in captivity, means the big cats remain under threat.
"It costs $1,000 a year to farm a tiger but just $1 for a farmer to kill one with a snare," said Lieberman.