The main threats for the survival of this majestic animal are the depletion of their natural habitat due to human development, commercial logging or agricultural use, conflicts with local communities for land and poaching to supply the market demand of tiger products. The latter seems to be one of the main causes. This post will only focus on the illegal trade of tiger parts.
The Tigers in Crisis website offers a good and user-friendly overview of the situation in general.
Accurate estimates of how much this illegal trade is worth (remember what CITES agreed: import/export forbidden in all its forms) are non-existing, but there seems to be a general agreement that the business is extremely profitable and it is currently the most immediate threat to the survival of big cats.
According to the Global Financial Integrity, tiger bones are one of the most lucrative products. Their report on Transnational Crime in the Developing World of February 2011 contains a good summary of how different estimates are. The report ranks wildlife trade as the 5th biggest illicit market in the world (between $7 and $10 billion).
I could not find estimates about what percentage of it accounts for the international illegal trade of tiger parts. Using Traffic’s report “Reduced to Skin and Bones: An Analysis of Tiger Seizures from 11 Tiger Range Countries (2000–2010)”and the information provided by Havocscope (Global Black Market information), I made a humble attempt to roughly calculate how much a dead single tiger with its parts is worth in the market: $121000.
Considering the economic importance of such an activity, I want to believe that there are estimates more accurate than mine. Thus, if you happen to read this and have more information, I will be happy to post it in the blog!
Where? It is obvious that supply is concentrated in the few places on earth where the Panthera Tigris is to be found. According to the data gathered by WWF, tigers can be found in 13 countries in the world: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia (Sumatra), Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Viet Nam.
According to UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime), South East Asia is one of the major supply regions for several of the largest illicit animal markets, and this includes tiger parts.
Both EIA and Traffic have provided for some time now with specific information about the supply chain of this “profitable business”. Traffic’s report “The Big cat trade in Myanmar and Thailand” from 2010 is particularly worth reading for its study on border areas between countries in the region.
EIA’s publications are also very helpful to identify particular individuals active in the supply side coming from India, particularly “The tiger skin trail”. To understand the big impact that Debbie Banks and Belinda Wright have had to stop this illegal traffic, I definitely recommend watching the documentary Tibet Connection from the series Eco-crimes. Unfortunately I only managed to find it in German.
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) follows closely the poaching activity in India and its website holds statistics since 1994.
There seems to exist a wide consensus in the fact that the majority of tiger parts and its derivatives are meant for the international market, and that the areas/points chosen to cross the border are those were the cost of transport is relatively cheap (paying local taxes and bribing corrupted officials) and the risk of being caught is low.
It is worth mentioning the particular problem of the non-government controlled areas in Myanmar which is reflected in Traffic’s report. These are self-governed areas, situated strategically in the border with China, India and Thailand which count with significant militia presence. To supplement funds in their operations against the central government, these groups seem to have acknowledged the fact that they hunt wildlife to whole sale or retail to international buyers.
Given the trade volume, it seems that the current wild population of tigers is incapable of covering demand. To cover “market needs” a new activity appeared: tiger breeding. This point will be addressed in a separate post.