The deaths underscore conflicting signals in China's attempts to save its dwindling number of tigers. While extensive conservation efforts are under way, animal protection groups say zoos and wildlife parks may be deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, hoping to sell off the carcasses onto a black market where tiger parts fetch a high price for use in traditional medicines and liquor.
"We've seen cases where tiger farms have steeped the bones from their deceased tigers in liquor to sell to visitors," said Hua Ning, project director for the China branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Other animal rights groups like the Washington, D.C.-based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have documented stockpiled pelts and the sale of tiger wine at the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain village in south China's Guangxi region.
Hua said she didn't have any specific information about illicit sales of tiger parts by the Shenyang zoo but she and other activists said Chinese tiger farms in particular were breeding too aggressively.
"Some of these farms are raising the tigers precisely because they hope that there will be some relaxation of the ban on tiger parts and they can sell the parts and derivatives," Hua said.
Tiger parts are still available on the black market as well, probably sourced from farms or zoos since there are so few wild tigers left in China, she said.