What could be more exhilarating than spotting a wild tiger on safari in one of India’s premier reserves? If only there were tigers to see.
Half of Subspecies Extinct in The Wild
Escalating illegal trade in tiger body parts and rampant destruction of tiger habitat have put the fearsome cat at serious risk of extinction. Among the world's highly threatened animals, only an estimated 4,000 wild tigers survive today, down from 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century.
India is home to half of the world’s remaining wild tigers, a species that historically could be found throughout Asia. Tigers that once inhabited the islands of Bali and Java vanished in the mid-1900s, and the South China tiger hasn’t been seen in the past two decades. Of the eight known tiger subspecies, almost half are extinct in the wild.
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Illegal Wildlife Trade to Blame
Illegal hunting and poaching are primarily to blame for the depleted population. Tigers are among the most sought-after victims of the wildlife trade. On the black market, a whole tiger is worth less than the sum of its parts. While its skin might sell for $10,000, its bones and body parts can fetch double or even triple that amount. Once sold, tiger parts often end up on pharmacy shelves as medicines and dining tables as delicacies across Asia.
“Once tigers are taken from the wild, they are smuggled across multiple borders through an elaborate illegal network en route to their final destination,” says Chantal Elkin, former director of the wildlife trade program at Conservation International. “There is a desperate need to strengthen political will to increase protection of tigers in their habitat and root out these trade networks.”
Tigers are prized for their distinctive striped skins and nearly every body part imaginable. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that consumption of tiger parts is good for a person’s health. For instance, joint pain and stiffness are treated with medicines containing tiger bones, and virility with tiger genitals. Tiger bone liquor is also available on the Chinese market, and tiger skin and fur are commonly used in decorative clothing and other luxury goods.
Habitat Loss, Weak Law Enforcement Contribute to Decline
Tigers that have been spared by the trade face yet another threat: loss of their home. In recent years, Asian countries have begun clearing entire forests to meet the needs of growing populations and economies. As a result, tigers now are forced to roam around landscapes that are too small and fragmented to support their prey.
What is especially worrisome about the decline of tigers is that it’s occurring despite the animal’s legal protection. In every country where tigers exist are laws that prohibit their hunting, poaching, and international trade. However, weak law enforcement and inadequate security at tiger sanctuaries is failing to safeguard the exquisite animal.
Domestic trade in tiger parts is banned in both India and China, yet tiger farms still operate in China, and some have expressed interest in seeing the ban lifted. CI is collaborating with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as TRAFFIC and Save the Tiger Fund, to protest lifting the ban. The joint NGO group aims to set the record straight about the pitfalls of reopening trade and its harmful impacts on farmed and wild tigers.
Trade bans have been extremely effective when properly enforced, as demonstrated by the recovery of Russia’s Siberian tiger population. An international effort by NGOs and Russian authorities to secure safe habitat for the tiger has succeeded in stabilizing its population for the last decade. Increased habitat and patrolling have also helped protect wild tigers in Indonesia through a program supported by the CI-administered Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
These achievements show that education and targeted enforcement of laws and protected areas can save lives. And with so few tigers left in the wild, every animal counts.