Born Free USA column: Will we ever see a wild tiger?
Adam M Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, continues his monthly column for Wildlife Extra with his views on the illegal trade in tiger parts and the forthcoming CITES meeting.
In 2007, I visited the Kanha National Park (Tiger Reserve) in India to meet colleagues working on tiger conservation. Our purpose: could we come up with a strategy to save the wild tiger? Could we establish policies that would allow the growth of the tiger population over the next three, five, 10 years?
While I was in Kanha I saw many amazing animals – deer, monkeys, reptiles, foxes… but no tigers. However, in just a few days I heard stories of two tigers being trapped by poachers, destined to be slaughtered and sold into the tiger parts trade: pelts, bones, teeth, claws, internal organs.
In 1900, there were an estimated 100,000 wild tigers roaming free through their wild Asian range, into the Russian Far East. Today, fewer than 3,500 are estimated to remain. More tigers are kept in private hands in America than remain in all of their historic wild range. This is a species that has suffered a 96 per cent decline in the past century. It is a pitiful indictment of human shortsightedness that the species’ plight has become so critical.
In 2004 and again in 2013, I visited the Sriracha Tiger Zoo outside Bangkok, Thailand. There was no problem seeing tigers there. Tigers in circus shows leaping through rings of fire; tigers in cement pools of fetid water, fighting for space; tigers literally piled on top of one another in cramped cages; tigers waiting for tourists to shoot a box hanging over their heads so meat could fall from the sky as a treat for these poor, caged beasts.
Sriracha Tiger Zoo has been implicated in the illegal trade in 100 tigers to China to be slaughtered and sold on the black market in tiger parts and products.
Demand for tiger parts in Asia continues to drive the slaughter, despite concerted conservationists’ efforts to stop the decline. Tiger farms in Asia (especially in China but also in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) continue to breed tigers in captivity and allow the animals’ parts and products made from them to leach into the marketplace. This availability stimulates demand, leading to more breeding and slaughter – but also to more poaching in the wild. From a straight economic perspective, imagine the return on investment: the cost of a tiger breeding facility where animals are bred, fed, and housed until slaughter, versus the cost of a bullet or wire snare to forever silence the roar of a wild tiger. It’s easy money.
From 7-11 July, I will be in Geneva for the meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Conservation of Asian big cats, with emphasis on the tiger, will be a significant issue before the Committee. The documents the CITES delegates will consider include alarming information about the state of tiger conservation today. Seizures and trade are increasing; tiger skins, live animals, and frozen bodies are frequently in trade; other feline species are at risk, such as African lions which are traded fraudulently as tigers; and tiger parts are no longer being consumed primarily as an alleged health remedy, but rather as a symbol of wealth.
If government leaders the world over cannot declare unequivocally and with unanimity that there should be no commercialisation of any tiger, and any part of a tiger, for any purpose, then the tiger has little hope, I’m afraid.
The solution is rather simple: no tiger farming, no breeding for commercial sale, no selling or buying tiger parts, and increased investment in wildlife law enforcement in nations such as India, battling for the future of their resident tigers.
Delegates attending the CITES meeting in Geneva should embrace this vision for a future with wild tigers. Someday I hope to take my daughter Mia to see a tiger – in India, in the wild. The decisions taken today will determine whether tigers will exist tomorrow.