The tiger trade is one of the largest criminal networks in the world, fetching around $10 billion a year. Comparatively, the cocaine trade is worth $70 billion, placing the two infamous industries on a similar scale.
The tiger parts trade is extremely complex and highly sophisticated, making it a tricky trade to understand and eradicate. And the fact that the Chinese government turns a blind eye means it continues to flourish in the background.
There used to be over 100,000 tigers roaming freely in the wild by the 20th century. Now, there are around 3,200 left. And counting. The mightiest animal in the jungle is now also the most vulnerable.
The reason for the decline? Human(un)kind – please hold your bloody hands up.
For centuries, the tiger has been a symbol of power and courage that has captured the imagination of artists and also the greed of the crooked.
Historically, tiger hunting was a popular past time among the wealthy British, Indians and Chinese and ‘success’ at the sport was a sign of heroism.
As soon as tiger populations became threatened, hunting was banned. But today we destroy tigers’ homes, shoot them dead for their skin to use as wall hangings or hearthrugs, use their teeth and bones for mythical medicine and even their penis as an aphrodisiac.
Why should we care?
Many people fail to understand the welfare of the tiger because they cannot see how it affects humans. But tigers are at the top of the food chain; therefore they keep the numbers of their prey – such as deer, antelopes and gaur – under control.
If the tiger becomes extinct, the populations of their prey will spiral out of control and destroy the forests and environment upon which they feed. Smaller animals, such as insects, will not be able to survive and will end up feeding on crops and plants which are grown by local farmers.
Therefore, the extinction of tigers will deeply impact upon the ecosystem, biodiversity, local communities, habitats and other species.
I recently attended an event at the Royal Geographic Society in London called ‘A World Without Tigers?’ organized by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) which promoted their tiger conservation campaign called ‘Tiger Time’.
Mark Carwardine – a BBC Presenter, Zoologist, Conservationist, Wildlife Photographer and Writer – hosted the event and gave an overview of the crisis:
- Two tiger subspecies, the Bali and Javan tiger, are already extinct with a third subspecies – the Caspian tiger – yet to be confirmed. It has been claimed that the South China tiger may become extinct within the next decade.
- The tiger population is dwindling because of hunting by poachers, being killed for clashing with human dwellers and forest workers and by having their habitats destroyed. Ninety-three percent of the tiger’s habitat has disappeared in the last century.
- Four tigers are killed every week and China is responsible for the most tiger poaching activity. Their trust in the medicinal effects of tiger teeth, skin and bones is based on ancient beliefs which are not backed up by scientific evidence. The Chinese also cash in on the billions of blood money yielded by the tiger trade to sell tiger body parts as food, clothes or souvenirs.
- Tiger conservation is extremely complex because of the intricacies of the tiger trade and the lack of effective support from politicians and police forces.
Poaching gangs are well-equipped groups of individuals who are heavily armed and able to network with one another by mobile phones when they detect an anti-poaching team.
People involved in anti-poaching activities, which are funded by the DSWF, work in strenuous conditions, sometimes dangerously undercover, to stop the poachers in their tracks.
The Foundation provides them with the necessary field equipment and helps to implement a patrol system, which collects, stores and analyses the information obtained from anti-poaching programmes. They also attempt to educate poachers about other sources of income, as many are unaware of alternatives to tiger hunting as a means of survival for themselves and their families.
Founded in 1984, The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is an independent lobbying and campaigning organization that works internationally to protect the environment from crime and abuse and is supported by the DSWF.
Despite being a small organization, their tireless work to preserve wildlife and the environment has made headline news across the world. They claim that they are living proof that a small group of committed individuals can help make a big difference.
Dethroning the king of the jungle
Debbie Banks, the Head of the Tiger Campaign at EIA, spoke about the harrowing evidence of tiger trading that she has presented to the Chinese government since 2004, but the minimal measures that officials have taken are not enough to stop the trade from flourishing.
The following footage from an Indian news channel shows the extensive evidence that Debbie and the EIA have exposed using local Chinese people – because of their language skills – in undercover filming operations:
The video shows the extortionate values attributed to various tiger parts, such as tiger skin worth $21,860 per skin, teeth that are valued at $1650 each and bones that are priced at $1170 per kg. A tiger tooth is even more expensive than ivory.
The Chinese believe that tiger parts, almost everything from its eyeballs to its fat, provide remedies to a whole host of ailments. There’s a price on the tiger’s head all the way down to its dung (mistakenly thought to treat boils, piles and alcoholism).
NONE of the ‘cures’ are scientifically proven. And where medicine isn’t used as an excuse for pulling the trigger, too many people would rather see the beauty of the animal lying limp and lifeless on floors or against walls rather than roaming free in the wild.
In another video footage of an undercover operation, Debbie exposed tiger traders boasting to the secret EIA agents of their methods of exporting the body parts.
For example, bones are split into two so that they can’t be detected through airport security. Also, in order to bypass customs, the parts are also transported via porters who travel days and nights through the forest.
Similar routes are also used for the trading and transportation of narcotics and the illegal drugs trade.
Shockingly, Debbie also revealed that Chinese army officials are among the buyers of tiger parts. The lack of support from official bodies makes the task of stopping the trade even more difficult.
Tiger skin is also widely worn in Tibet as a traditional fashion garment at festivals and is openly on sale at the markets in Lhasa. Tibetan officials, tourists and even festival organizers have been seen wearing the tiger skin clothes.
The Chinese government has been exposed by the EIA as protecting the organizations involved in the Tibetan market because of the past and current political services they provided to the regime.
China also has the largest tiger breeding farms, for the sole reason of slaughtering the animals and cashing in on their carcasses. In 2007, the government had agreed to phase out the farms, but no action has been taken.
Idle box tickers
A Tiger Summit held in St Petersburg last year concluded with the promise of doubling the tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese calendar. However, Debbie stressed that the plan of action is not effective enough.
She accused such meetings of just being idle ‘box-ticking’ activities. Too much celebration occurs when poachers are seized – but not enough criminals end up being convicted. She said, the poachers need to be stripped of the assets that aid them in their crime and more information needs to be provided on them to enable ant-poaching operations to become more targeted.
Debbie argued that it’s not enough to have prime ministers or politicians nodding their heads in agreement – a well-informed relationship is essential between government officials, NGOs and local people, as these efforts have proven to show some promise.
Mark Carwardine commented that there are many more tigers in captivity than in the wild – even in people’s homes in America. In fact, National Geographic reported last year that there are around 5,000 tigers in U.S. back gardens.
But that’s not a positive statistic – more often than not, the tigers are not kept in acceptable conditions. The wildlife charity WWF stated that weak U.S. regulations could be fuelling the tiger trade, as it is virtually impossible to keep track of the tigers and know what is being done with their bodies once they have died.
Mark said that captive tigers are difficult to release in the wild as they are not used to hunting and their unfamiliarity with the forest may mean they fall in the traps of poachers. The priority is to keep tigers safely in the wild, as nature intended.
“If we can’t save tigers, what can we save?”
As Debbie aptly concluded in her talk: “If we can’t save tigers, what can we save?”
Education and awareness at all levels, from the government to local people, is a key element in conserving the tiger. Encouraging respect for all living beings needs to be instilled in children to ensure a sustaining future, and making adults better informed in order to dispel false beliefs.
What will the extinction of this iconic animal say about the compassion and selflessness of humankind? As Mahatma Gandhi rightly said:
”The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
If we can’t rectify a destructive past in a progressive present, then can we expect anything more than a floundering future?
Check the following websites for ways in which you can help. In particular, sign up for Tiger Time to strengthen our stand against a future without tigers and help them claw back from extinction.
– Monica Sarkar