With less than 4000 tigers remaining in the wild, the illegal trade of tiger parts like skin, teeth, blood, bones, and nails is booming in the Asian market. Government(s) and wildlife protection organizations in several countries have been working to stop the black marketing of wildlife products. But the trade has not yet ceased to operate in South-East Asia and other parts of the world.
Several illegal farms are indulged in breeding these exotic wild animals like tigers and rhinos for their body parts. Reports suggest that there are as many as 8000 tigers held in captive facilities across China, India, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The illegal breeding and poaching of tigers, as well as other wild animals for their body parts, has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
Earlier tiger bones were known for their medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, but with time these products are now being used to make luxury items like tiger wine, tiger cake, etc. The bones are crushed to make medicines, stewed in rice water to make tiger wine, and reduced over a fire to make tiger cakes. The skin is used for furniture upholstery and décor items like rugs and wall hangings. Tiger teeth are set in gold and turned into jewelry.
United Nations World Wildlife Crime Report
According to a United Nations (UN) World Wildlife Crime Report published in the Times of India, between 2007 and 2008, of all wildlife seizures reported across the globe, two-thirds were only of tiger bones. The report revealed that Thailand and India are the primary sources for these seizures. It was found that most of the seizures that came from Thailand were from illegally farmed tigers. In contrast, the ones from India were mostly captured from the wild. The report added that out of the 155 cases in which the tiger trafficker’s nationality could be determined, 18 percent of them were Indians followed by 29 percent Chinese.
All India Tiger Estimation Report, 2018
In 2019 on the occasion of International Tiger Day, PM Narendra Modi released All India Tiger Estimation Report,2018, in New Delhi. The report stated that the number of tigers has increased by 741 since 2014 and presently stands at 2967. With a target to at least double the number of tigers till 2022, India has been working consistently to preserve the natural habitat of tigers and save them. Irrespective of all government efforts, the poaching and illegal trading of tigers has not stopped completely.
Role of India in Illegal tiger trade
National Geographic blog recently shared some interesting insights that their team gathered while working on a short video, Battling India’s Illegal Tiger Trade in Central India. The team worked with two of the world’s foremost experts on illegal wildlife trade, Belinda Wright and Nitin Desai. They noticed that most of the poaching was done by poor locals who worked under organized gangs. The bones and other body parts were exported to China, where they were used to make pricey traditional Chinese medicines and luxurious décor items.
Belinda Wright is a tiger lover and has spent years shooting her Emmy award-winning National Geographic Documentary, Land of the Tiger. She was living near the Kanha Tiger Reserve when she heard rumors that the outsiders were targeting tigers in the Reserve. She set up a sting operation uncovering a tiger-smuggling activity involving five men, who were arrested immediately. While traveling across the state investigating the situation, she was offered the skins and bones of 39 dead tigers and identified 42 cat poachers and 32 dealers. Horrified with the experience, Belinda left her filmmaking career and founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
The Wildlife Protection Society of India
Since 1994, this (not-for-profit) organization has been working to gather information on wildlife crimes, especially against tigers. It has been helping the enforcement authorities in arresting alleged criminals and curbing wildlife crimes. Working along the line, they have discovered several tips and tricks that the poachers use to trap wild tigers. One such equipment was found in the “buffer” forest just outside Tadoba. It was a locally made bulky iron contraption with metal jaws and serrated teeth. It had a thick metal chain attached to anchor it to the ground. Instead of using fancy weapons to trap tigers, these poachers used home-made equipment, perhaps, made by a local blacksmith. Irrespective of its design, the trap was highly efficient, and no tiger could escape its jaws.
Illegal breeding of tigers in other countries
In a report published by National Geographic describing the experience of an undercover investigator with the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), the horrors of captive breeding and extraction of bones and body parts of tigers are discussed extensively. WJC is a Hague based nonprofit organization that works to uncover the criminal networks of the wildlife trade. Since 2016, with their Operation Ambush, they have been focusing on captive tiger facilities in Southeast Asia. They even shared several case briefings, photos, and video clips that give an insider look at the illegal trade. The investigators said that the breeders had three tigers hidden in their backyard trapped in a metal cage. Furthermore, it was reported that most of Vietnam’s captive tigers are in licensed public and private zoos.
The report revealed several facilities across Thailand and Vietnam that have been illegally breeding tigers for their body parts to satisfy the demand of the Chinese and Vietnamese black market. Some of these facilities are even licensed by the national governments and are open to the public, marketed as zoos, conservation centers, and tourist spots. One such facility is Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple, which has made it in the headlines multiple times for speed-breeding and seizure of tigers.
The international commercial trade of tigers and their body parts has been banned since 1987. The decision was taken after a vote by countries party to the CITES-Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, an international treaty regulating wildlife trade. In 2007 it was approved by CITES parties that tigers should not be bred for trade. Yet illegal breeding facilities are still fully functional, fueling the black market of wild animal products.