BEIJING -- Under pressure from international animal rights groups, the Chinese government has drafted regulations to prohibit the feeding of large mammals -- such as live cows, pigs and sheep -- to tigers and lions as a form of public entertainment.
The regulations, announced this month, are designed to prevent the nation's growing number of commercial wildlife parks from using the slaughter of domestic animals as a money maker and tourist attraction.
Because the practice is not covered by law but only by less stringent regulations, Chinese officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to enforce. Animal welfare activists, though, praised the move as a small step toward developing animal rights in a nation where practically none exist.
"I think it is good progress," said Grace Gabriel, China director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has operated an office here since 1993.
"It's too cruel," said Chen Runsheng, vice secretary-general of the government-affiliated China Wildlife Conservation Association. "Even for Chinese, we cannot stand it."
Chinese traditionally have seen animals as a resource to be exploited rather than preserved. In the past decade or so, though, attitudes have begun to change.
Foreign and domestic organizations have pushed for greater protection of wildlife, newspapers have printed more articles criticizing the mistreatment of animals and pet ownership has risen markedly in cities. China, however,does not have an animal-cruelty law.
Government officials say they drafted the regulations against live feeding in June.
Yet it was only after IFAW and the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) in Hong Kong began publicizing a particularly grisly case at an animal park in the southern city of Guilin that the officials announced the regulations.
Guilin attracts millions of tourists annually, because it is home to thousands of unusually shaped limestone mountains. The Xiongshen Bear and Tiger Entertainment City opened there this year.
Live oxen for cats
The park, which local tourist officials say is quite popular, routinely feeds live oxen to tigers and lions while visitors watch.
Investigators for AAF also found that the park openly sells wine made from tiger bones and that one of its restaurants serves tiger meat.
Both practices violate China's Wildlife Law, which protects endangered species.
During one performance, which the park touts as "animal fighting," a tiger mauled but failed to kill an ox.
Park employees drove the wheel of a vehicle over the neck of the wounded animal while separating it from the tiger.
`Heartbreaking to see'
"It was heartbreaking to see the badly injured ox crying out in pain and struggling to its feet time after time, only to be brought down again," said Jill Robinson, the founder of AAF, who witnessed the performance.
The staging of killings has become a lucrative way for animal parks to draw visitors.
In Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, one park sells baby ducks to tourists so they can throw them into the waiting jaws of crocodiles.
Some parks also charge patrons money to pose with drugged tigers and other wild beasts.
Safety has been a problem.
Last Tuesday, a 6-year-old girl in Shanghai narrowly escaped injury when a tiger cub turned on her after she sat on its back to pose for a photo.
Mauled by tigers
The next day, an employee in the same park got out of a bus while he was driving tourists through an area filled with tigers. The man was trying to urge another bus to drive on.
The Manchurian tigers dragged him to a patch of lawn and mauled him to death.
The government has met with managers of the nation's major wildlife parks to warn them about the prohibition on live feeding. Chen, of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, said parks that failed to comply could be temporarily shut down by local forestry officials.
The association plans to suggest that China's parliament include the regulations when it redrafts the country's wildlife protection law, which is nearly 11 years old.
Changing practices won't be easy, though.
While a wildlife park outside Beijing recently stopped live feedings because of negative publicity, the Xiongshen Park shows no sign of letting up.
Officials at Xiongshen claim that they feed domestic animals to tigers and lions as a sort of "wildness" training to prepare them for return to their natural habitat.
The park, however, has yet to return any animals to the wild and activists find the concept absurd.
Still, Xiongshen defends the shows.
"Tourists have different opinions on this, but we think it fits into natural law," said Zhang Hong- ling, a public announcer at the park, adding that they have two shows daily.