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Siberian tigers "starved to death" in Chinese Zoo

Reports said 11 Siberian tigers starved to death having been fed nothing but chicken bones at a Chinese zoo.

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Siberian tigers are one of the world's rarest species, with an estimated 300 left in the wild, 50 in China. But more than 5,000 are held captive on farms and wildlife parks across China.

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Xie Yan, China director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said she expects the overbreeding of captive tigers in China to come up at a meeting of signatories to CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — that begins Saturday in Doha, Qatar.

Xie's group wants China to make animal sanctuaries use birth control to "reduce the number of tigers in captivity to make sure they are well-treated."

The goal should be to boost China's wild Siberian tiger population and restore habitats that have been destroyed by industrialization, she said.

The Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo, where the latest deaths occurred, is a long-troubled tourist spot also known as the Glacier Animal Zoo. In November 2007, three tigers killed a fourth during a fight over food. At the end of last year, two hungry tigers there were shot and killed by police after they mauled a zookeeper.

In the latest deaths, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted Liu Xiaoqiang of the Shenyang Wild Animal Protection Station as saying that the tigers had been kept in cold, cramped metal cages and were fed nothing but chicken bones.

Zoo spokesman Wu Xi said, however, that the animals died from "various diseases" that were hard for them to endure because of this year's unusually harsh winter. He said the tigers were kept in cages indoors because of the bitter cold.

Wu wouldn't specify what diseases the animals had. He said 30 tigers now remain at the zoo but some remain at risk of illness.

"Some of the physically strong ones might survive the current difficulty, including the cold weather and the diseases," Wu said.

Wang, the zoo executive, said the bodies of the 11 tigers have been put into a storage freezer but denied plans to sell them. "China has regulations on tiger skins and bones, which are barred from going into the market," she said.

China banned the sale of tiger parts and the use of tiger parts in Chinese medicine in 1993, imposing stiff sentences on offenders, but tiger bone, penis, pelts and other parts are still sold illegally to consumers — some who believe the products increase potency or can cure ailments from convulsions to skin disease.

China's laws against poaching are tough — killing an endangered tiger can be punishable by death — but the legislation doesn't address irresponsible zoo keepers who abuse or neglect captive tigers.

"Because there is no legal standard, facilities like these apply their own," said Hua, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Some take good care of the animals but there are also a lot of abuse cases."

IN PICTURES: Siberian Tigers