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.
“Laundering” of animals as farmed that were actually caught in the wild is a frequent practice. In Chengdu, China, one-third of 285 bears rescued from bile farms and now living at a rehabilitation center run by Animals Asia, a nonprofit group, are missing limbs, a sign that they were caught in the wild by snares.
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.
Even if the authorities move forward with shutting down the farms, what to do with the country’s 700-plus captive tigers is a challenge. Euthanizing them would bring unwanted media attention, but releasing them into the wild is not an option. There’s not much prey, and the tigers lack survival skills and have no fear of humans.
Yet keeping them is a burden; it costs thousands of dollars a year to feed a single tiger, Ms. Banks said, and tigers can live up to 20 years.