The tiger is one of the most iconic of wild animals. Sleek, magnificent and instantly recognisable, the tiger has become immortalised in the legends, values and lore of many human cultures. Works of William Blake, A.A. Milne and Walt Disney have established the tiger as an object of fascination and endearment.
But wild tigers are in real trouble. From a global population of around 100,000 a century ago, today there are thought to be around 3,000 alive in the wild.
Those remaining tigers live in small, often fragmented populations across 13 Asian countries in an area that only covers about 7 percent of their original range. Some of these populations are thought to be too small to be viable.
Already during the past century, we have lost the Caspian tiger of southwest Asia, and the Bali and Javan tigers of Indonesia to extinction. The five surviving tiger subspecies--the Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, South China and Sumatran - are all critically endangered or endangered throughout their ranges.
The reasons for the decline of the formerly undisputed king of Asia's grasslands, forests and mountains are complex, but the responsibility lies firmly with humans. Habitat loss, overexploitation of the tiger's natural prey species, and human-tiger conflicts that arise when tigers live and hunt in close proximity to people and our livestock, have all played a big part.
Poaching arguably poses the biggest threat to the remaining populations.
The demand for tiger products, and particularly tiger bone as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines and tonics, is driving poachers to continue to seek out the remaining wild tigers, even though they face stiff penalties if they are caught. Tiger bone wine, alongside a host of other products made from endangered animals, has become fashionable among increasingly wealthy Asians as a gift to a boss, or as a show of commitment or gratitude during business deals.
Wildlife officers and enforcement officials fight a daily battle to protect remaining tigers against poaching.
More than 200 seizures of tiger parts have been made every year since 2009, according to TRAFFIC, a group that monitors trade in wildlife. Yet these seizures represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Even though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned all international commercial trade in tigers and their products in 1987, and an internal ban on the trade in tiger products has been in place in China (the major market for tiger products) since 1993, the demand for tiger products is so high that tiger farms have mushroomed in parts of Asia. Tigers on tiger farms now far outnumber their wild counterparts.
There are thought to be at least 5,000 tigers on around 20 tiger farms in China, with more tiger farms in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. These farms masquerade as tourist attractions. The owners of the farms are often influential business people with strong political ties.
The animals who are bred and live on these farms commonly endure barren and squalid conditions. Indeed because they are worth much more dead than alive, they are often underfed, and there have been reports of mass deaths of farmed tigers through starvation.
This shocking fact is no problem to the farmers, who simply stockpile the bones, skins, teeth and other body parts, either in anticipation of a resumption in trade, or to sell (often quite openly) on the black market. China has also introduced a system of registration which allows the skins of tigers from tiger farms to be sold. While it would seem logical that such farming would reduce pressure to poach wild tigers, consumers consider the products from wild tigers to be more potent and effective, and, as we've seen with the trade in elephant ivory, the existence of any trade in tiger parts paves the way for the sale of illegally procured products.
In 2007, CITES resolved to require member countries to restrict the numbers of captive tigers to levels supportive of conservation, and declared that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.
At the recent meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva, the United Kingdom and India called upon China and other Asian countries to make good on these commitments and phase out the farming of tigers. Sadly, this call was strongly rejected by China, with other Asian countries following suit. China argued that there was no evidence to show the existence of tiger farms threatened wild tigers.
Yet China's position defies logic. If China and other Asian countries are committed to retaining international and national bans on tiger products, then why do they continue to defend tiger farms, whose only purpose is to supply tiger parts for the trade?
Encouraging the farming and commercial trade in the products of endangered wildlife, whether through legal or illegal means, will never serve to protect wild animals from the threat of extinction. The existence of trade only stimulates demand. Were China or other Asian countries ever to legalise the trade in tiger products, the demand would surely skyrocket.
Hope for tigers
Hope for the last remaining tiger populations rests with attempts to coordinate conservation efforts across the remaining range states. The international community came together in 2010 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to sanction the Global Tiger Initiative, a collaboration of governments, international agencies, civil society and the private sector under the leadership of the World Bank. Through this initiative, the Global Tiger Recovery Programme is being implemented. The programme places the onus on range states and the international community to cooperate to protect remaining tiger populations, and connect isolated populations with the aim of increasing wild tiger numbers over time.
But if we are to save wild tigers from disappearing altogether, we have to address the demand for their parts and products made from them.
Sadly, while there are profits to be made from tigers, the farming of these animals for their parts and products, and the poaching of tigers in the wild, seems set to continue.
Until there are none left to poach.
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