The main threats to tiger populations today are habitat loss/fragmentation and poaching. Habitat Loss and fragmentation occurs when land is modified for agricultural purposes, logging, and land conversion for grazing domestic animals. The rapidly growing human population has reduced the number of viable tiger habitats. The human population in India alone has increased by nearly 50% since 1973 with a total population in 1995 estimated to be about 931 million. Prime tiger habitats, such as forests and grasslands, are being converted for agricultural needs. Between 1980 and 1990 in Asia, about 470,000 square km (181,467 square mi) of forest were lost. It is estimated that deforestation will continue at a rate of 47,000 square km (18,147 square mi) per year.
Tigers require large interconnected tracts of suitable habitat to maintain healthy breeding populations. The conversion of land for agricultural purposes creates wide expanses of open land in which may isolate tiger populations from one another. In addition to the reduced genetic variability, fragmentation may also lead to more aggressive encounters between tigers due to the increased competition for resources and mates.
Poaching is illegal killing of an animal. Tigers are poached for two main reasons: their threat or perceived threat to wildlife and/or people and monetary gain. Historically tigers were poached for furs. While there is still some sold illegally, increased public awareness campaigns and international trade controls have reduced this demand. Tigers may prey upon agricultural animals and have been illegally shot at or poisoned by consuming baited carcasses. However, tigers are mainly poached for their bones and other body parts which are in great demand for traditional Chinese medicines.
Illegal trade commerce is difficult to control because poaching networks are well organized and countries in which tigers live often do not have resources available to hire, equip and train law enforcement officers.
Traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) have utilized tiger bones for thousands of years because it is thought to calm fright and cure ulcers, bites, rheumatism, convulsions and burns. Over 110 pharmaceutical factories in 1985 were producing medicines with tiger components. The value of tiger bone varies by locality, however it is estimated that poachers receive about $130 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in Nepal, $130 to $175 per kilogram in Vietnam and as much as $300 per kilogram in Russia. It is estimated that one complete tiger skeleton is valued at ten years worth of salary in seven nations within the tiger’s range. This high demand has made tiger bones more valuable than their skin.
It’s the TCM market that is driving the poaching boom. Every part of this big cat from tail to whisker sells. According to the approximate figures prevalent in 2006 tigers were killed for just Rs. 5,000 in India by gullible villagers, but were sold in international market for a hefty price of up to $50,000 by big traders and smugglers.
Tail – (Rs 9,200 apiece) – It is mixed with soap and sold as cure for skin disease.
Bones – (upwards of Rs. 30,000 a kg) – of all tiger part, bones are most valued. Powdered or prepared as tiger wine, it is said to soothe rheumatic pain and cure ulcers.
Penis – (a bowl of soup for Rs. 1,600) – used in love potions such as tiger soup, much valued as an aphrodisiac.
Testes – used to treat lymph node TB
Gallstones – they are used to cure abcesses and weak eyesight.
Stomach – noodles garnished with tiger liver are quite a delicacy. In pill form it cures upset stomach.
Bile – Used to treat convulsions in children.
Skin – (Rs. 45,000) – major market is Tibet where wearing tiger skin garments is considered high fashion. In medicine form it is used to treat mental illness.
Hair – burnt to drive away centipedes.
Brain – drives away acne and laziness.
Eyes – (Rs. 5,500 a pair) – used to treat epilepsy, malaria, cataract and fever in children.
Nose – (Rs. 700) – nose leather is used to treat superficial wounds such as bites. Suspended over the bed, it is believed to increase chances of having a boy.
Teeth – (canine Rs. 5,600) – used in the treatment of rabies, asthma and sores on the penis.
Whiskers – usually kept as a good luck charm and also used to reduce toothache.
Claws – (Rs. 450) – are a talisman to ward off evil. Usually set in silver or gold and prized as wrist and neck jewellery.
Flesh – improves vitality and is a tonic for stomach and spleen.
Fat – used to treat everything from vomiting, dog bites to haemorrhoids.
Blood – (Rs. 400 for a 40 cc bottle) – believed to strengthen the constitution and boosts willpower.
Poaching Of Major Wild Animals
The wildlife products traded illegally from the country are Musk Deer for cosmetics, Bear for skin and bear bile, Elephant Tusk for ivory, Rhino horns for aphrodisiac, Tiger and Leopard skins for fashion products, oriental medicines and food, Snakes and Monitor Lizard skins for leather industry, Birds for pet trade and feather for decoration, Swiftlet nests for soups, Mongoose for bristles, Turtles for meat and soup, and Tibetan Antelope for shawls. It is estimated that quantum of trade in wildlife products is just next to narcotics, valued at nearly 20 billion dollars in the global market; of this more than one third is illegal.
Illicit trans-boundary trade in tiger body parts has increased due to lucrative prices offered for tiger bones in particular. As per one estimate (1999) 10 gm of tiger bones fetch a price of US$ 24.25 at the China-Vietnam border. In Japan, trade in tiger parts and products was permitted till April, 2000. This has now been banned after persuasion by the global conservation community. Difficulties being faced by developing countries like India in controlling illicit trade in tiger parts and products, have been brought to the notice of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) time and again. The Convention has appealed to the International Community to support India in its efforts for conserving tigers.
Main routes of wildlife smuggling
Wildlife body parts are smuggled from India to Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, from where they are transported to rest of the world and especially China.
Animals poached in east and eastern Central India are smuggled via Indo-Myanmar and Indo-Bangladesh borders.
Animals poached in north and central India smuggled via Indo-Nepal border (Uttarakhand) and Ladakh.
$32 billion was the value of illegal wildlife trade in the world in 2011, according to Interpol. The agency also says that this is the fastest growing illegal activity in the world.
23,676 kg of illegal ivory confiscated globally in 2011. TRAFFIC India reports over 450 Indian wild bird species – especially parakeets & munias are being traded.
The most important immediate threat to the existence of wild tigers is the illegal trade between India, Nepal and China in poached skins and body parts. These countries have failed to enforce adequate measures. Wildlife crimes have always remained at a low priority on the agenda in terms of political commitment and investment for years. There are well-organized gangs of professional poachers, who move from place to place and set up camps in vulnerable areas. After the tiger is killed its skins are rough-cured in the field and later handed over to dealers, who send them for further treatment to tanning centers in India. Buyers choose the skins from dealers or tanneries and smuggle them through a complex interlinking network to markets outside India, mainly in China.
Other factors contributing to the decline in tiger numbers are urbanization and revenge killing. People living inside the reserves or on the periphery blame tigers for killing their cattle and shoot them. Their skins and body parts may however become a part of the illegal trade.
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) is an organisation that works with law enforcement agencies in India to apprehend poachers and wildlife traders throughout the country. It investigates and authenticates any seizure of tiger parts and unnatural tiger deaths that are brought to its notice. Between 1994 and 2009, the organisation has documented 893 cases of tigers killed in India, which is just a small part of the actual poaching and trade during those years.
In 2006, Sariska Tiger Reserve, located in the Alwar district of the state of Rajasthan in India, lost all its 26 tigers, mostly to poaching. In 2008 it was officially announced that none of the 24 tigers residing in the Panna Tiger Reserve, in Madhya Pradesh (India), were left due to excessive poaching.
To quote a Species Status Report of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-International): “Chinese authorities have disclosed that in 1991, exports of tiger bone medicines included 15,079 cartons of tablets, 5,250 kg of liquid medicines and 31,500 bottles of wine. Most of the exports are believed to have been to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, but the tiger-based medicines have been found in many parts of world where there are Chinese communities, including Europe and the US.”
It becomes pertinent to point out here that the efficacy of the medicines has yet to be scientifically established. Thus far, experts insist that it is more a matter of belief for the Oriental communities that emanate from the various mystical and all awe-inspiring qualities that are associated with the tiger than anything else. They believe that is why they administer traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
The tiger is a symbol of nature conservation movement all over the world. Nature has placed this animal at the apex of the ecological food pyramid in the forest eco-systems. The effective conservation of tiger means the conservation of all that encompasses its habitat. This will include all living and non-living components of the forests where tiger lives. Conversely, its loss could well auger the demise of the entire ecosystem, throwing out of gear the delicate balance of nature and rendering areas inhospitable even for humans.
Clearly, the clock has turned full circle. It would do well to recall the Chinese establishment’s attitude to the ‘menace of tigers’ in the 1950s when they justified the killing of over 3,000 tigers for providing large stocks of bones to medicine factories saying that the tiger had become a “pest”. Today, there are a handful of tigers left in the country.
According to the most conservative official estimates, Korea imported 6,128 kg of tiger bones up to 1992. In 1993 alone, Korea imported 1,783 kg of tiger bones. This was in preparation to joining the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
China also currently has an estimated 5,000 to 9,000 captive tigers kept in 15 odd farms. Wildlife experts warn that such farms keep the threat of the tiger trade alive, because these business owners put pressure on China to reverse its official ban. In 1993, the Chinese government had banned the trade in tiger parts used for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The move helped in curbing consumer demand, which has consistently driven poachers to hunt down wild tigers.