Year of the tiger
The tiger could be extinct by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. We look at why it's so hard to tamp down on poachers and the flourishing tiger trade
by Venessa Lee Correspondent
05:55 AM Feb 13, 2010
THE tigers had been chopped into halves and quarters, much like how a housewife would prepare a chicken for the pot.
Conservationists say that this poacher's trick, a monstrous mirroring of the kitchen routine, means consumption of tiger meat is increasing. "Over the last couple of years, there's been a number of seizures in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, where the tigers were cut in half or cut in quarters, without being skinned," said Mr Chris Shepherd of Traffic, a global network that monitors wildlife trade.
The fact that the pelts hadn't been removed whole indicated that the skin wasn't the main consideration, said Mr Shepherd, the senior programme officer for Traffic South-east Asia. Traffic is a joint programme by two conservation groups, WWF and IUCN.
"In South Asia, you see a lot more skin trade but in South-east Asia, the main threat appears to be the demand for bones and meat," he said, adding that the trade in tiger meat seems to be increasing.
Mr Richard Damania, the World Bank's lead environmental economist in South Asia, estimates that tiger parts can fetch up to US$70,000 ($99,000) on the black market, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Tiger meat may be found in restaurants that illicitly offer exotic game. The illegal tiger trade is booming in countries like China, which has banned tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine, but where the fur, whiskers, eyeballs and bones to make "wine" are still used.
"Tiger bone tonic wine has become a fashionable cocktail to serve among the nouveau rich, particularly in countries like China," Mr Crawford Allan, Director of Traffic-North America, was reported as saying this week.
Illegally poached wildlife is sometimes treated like frozen goods. Traffickers sometimes store tiger carcasses "in big refrigeration units, holding them until they've got a sale and then shipping them", said Mr Shepherd.
Last October, environmental officials discovered two frozen tigers hidden under blankets in a taxi in suburban Hanoi. The perpetrators were allegedly planning to sell the animals, weighing 40kg and 90kg, at 2 million Vietnamese dong ($150) per kg. There were at least three similar seizures there last year.
As the start of the Year of the Tiger is celebrated on Sunday, some conservation groups say that the highly endangered tiger could become extinct in the wild by the next 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.
"According to tiger experts, wild tigers may disappear by the next year of the tiger in 2022, if no action is taken to stop the poaching and illegal hunting, and to enhance habitat protection," says conservation group WWF, which has prioritised tiger conservation this year. In addition, the first Global Tiger Summit will take place in Vladivostok in September.
Deforestation, degradation of tiger environments and poaching of tigers and their prey have contributed to their rapid disappearance. WWF estimates that there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, limited to just 7 per cent of their historic range. A century ago, they numbered about 100,000. Three sub-species - the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers - became extinct in the 20th century. Many scientists believe a fourth, the South China tiger, is "functionally extinct" as it has not been seen in the wild for more than 25 years.
Some experts estimate the lucrative wildlife black market to be worth between US$10 billion and US$20 billion annually, which, given the illicit nature of the trade and the small numbers of successful prosecutions, may be a misleadingly low figure.
"Wildlife crimes are quite similar to drug crimes," where kingpins are usually out of reach, said Mr Dwi Nugroho Adhiasto, of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Indonesian Programme. "If we arrest the couriers, (who are like) drug mules, we don't know who is sending the drugs … In 2009, we arrested one middleman in Jakarta, he also dealt in drugs."
A hierarchy involving "syndicates, middlemen and traffickers" has been observed in certain circles dealing in wildlife crimes, according to Mr Adhiasto. Sometimes "poachers send the tiger skin or bones or fangs to middlemen at district level," he said, adding that there were also middlemen at "province level."
Profit margins increase along this illegal chain of supply, according to conservationists interviewed, who said that prices vary in different countries. "In 2006, we identified some villagers who get 2 million rupiah (about $302) a month to get tigers in the forest," said Mr Adhiasto, adding that rates were probably similar now.
He said that the skin of an adult tiger, the "most popular" tiger product in the Indonesian black market, could fetch "12 to 15 million rupiah", while a stuffed tiger, which had been treated by taxidermists, could cost "25 to 50 million rupiah".
WHO ARE THE POACHERS?
The profile of tiger poachers varies. Some poachers are "opportunistic hunters," said Mr Adhiasto, citing as examples villagers who set up tiger snares made of "motorcycle parts", steel or plastic. In some tiger habitats in Malaysia, signs of poaching often increase at certain times of the year, said Mr Reuben Clements, formerly the Species Conservation Manager for the Peninsular Malaysia Programme, who this week left his post at WWF Malaysia.
Mr Clements, a Singaporean, said that the "seasonal" demand for deer meat, for instance, rises during "Hari Raya, Chinese New Year", and some hunters poach tigers if the opportunity arises while hunting game. Sometimes the WWF Malaysia team came across "artificial salt licks", big chunks of salt dumped onto the ground to entice animals, he said. Some tigers are killed because of run-ins with villagers, rather than poaching.
Many poachers are actually going after "gaharu" or agarwood, which is valued for its distinctive scent and used for incense, said Mr Clements. Sometimes armed with machetes or guns, small groups of foreign poachers often enter the Belum-Temengor forest complex in Perak via the East-West Highway that cuts through the vast forest like a tarmac ribbon, setting up camp in the area.
WWF Malaysia's day and night patrols and intelligence-gathering have helped wildlife authorities nab poachers and traders, or middlemen near the highway, and about 114 tiger snares have been deactivated since January 2009, said Mr Clements.
Enforcement against wildlife crimes in Russia and the 12 Asian countries - including China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia - where tigers are found, is often difficult.
"Traffickers and smugglers have a wide network, are well-armed and move fast. Tiger countries will need to invest a great deal more in rangers, enforcement, equipment and intelligence-led investigations to have an impact," said Ms Pauline Verheij, the tiger trade programme manager at Traffic International, who also works for the WWF Tiger Network Initiative.
With the numbers of tigers plummeting, traffickers and vendors have come up with a new gambit for customers: Fake tiger parts. These are increasingly sold in Medan, for example, said WCS' Mr Adhiasto, who added that the fakes, often made from cow bones or canine parts, sometimes look "quite real." "Sometimes they bleach the sambar deer skin, and paint it with the yellow and black pattern," he said.
In Singapore, "in the last five years from 2005 - 2009, there was no illegal trade in tigers, its parts and products. However, the AVA has investigated cases involving the import and sale of fake tiger parts such as paws, claws and skull", said Mr Gerald Neo, a Senior Wildlife Regulatory Officer at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA). There were a total of six cases in those five years, and "the fake tiger parts are usually derived from that of cows and goats", said Mr Neo.
South-east Asia is a global hotspot for the poaching, trafficking and consumption of illegal wildlife products, in part because of limited awareness of the problem among the public, generally weak laws governing wildlife trade, and low penalties, according to Asean-WEN, the regional Wildlife Enforcement Network.
Mr Shepherd of Traffic South-east Asia said: "There was a tiger found in a guy's refrigerator in Malaysia a few years ago and the fine he received was far less than the tiger was worth.
"First of all, (perpetrators) rarely get caught. If they do, the penalties are often very low, a few hundred dollars. But they could be smuggling shipments of reptiles, for example, worth millions of dollars."
Other serious issues that need to be addressed include the controversial issue of tiger farms, which breed tigers, in countries like China, which conservationists say fuels potential illegal demand for tiger parts.
According to Dr Chumphon Sukkaseam, Senior Officer of the Program Coordination Unit (PCU) of Asean-WEN, some tiger parts may have been harvested from tiger farms, which exist in Thailand.
"When we seize the tiger parts, the foot of the tiger is so smooth. The foot of a captive tiger is smooth because they walk on concrete floors," he said, adding that the authorities have also seized the paws of wild tigers, which are far more rough.
"This year being the Year of the Tiger, we're starting off with about 3,000 tigers. Last Year of the Tiger, we started off with more than 5,000 tigers," said Mr Shepherd.
"If something's not done, that's it … After the tigers are gone, the demand will shift to the other big cats. We already see packaged medicine that used to claim to contain tiger bone, now claims to contain lion or leopard bone."