Save the Tigers
By Gar Smith
January 19, 2006

Ray-Bans and tiger skins. These officials in Litang, Chana are dressed to kill in ceremonial cloaks made from tiger skins. Credit: Belinda Wright / WPSI / EIA

One hundred years ago, the world's tiger population was believed to number around 100,000. Today, fewer than 5,000 tigers remain. There are now more tigers in captivity in the world's zoos, circuses and private collections -- 6,000 -- than there are tigers in the wild.

During an August 2005 tour of China and the Tibet Autonomous Region, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found tiger and leopard skins being sold on "a previously unknown scale... much of which is being used for costumes and ceremonial events." Local Tibetan officials attending horse-race festivals were photographed wearing "chubas" of tiger and leopard skin. The tiger skins had come from India.

In Lhasa, shops openly displayed 54 leopard and 24 tiger-skin chubas. Leading EAI Senior Campaigner Debbie Banks to warn that, "if this trade continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger. It is imperative that the Indian and Chinese governments stop the trade now."

Panthera tigris is the largest of the world's living wild cats (family Felidae). It is believed that tigers originated in northern China two million years ago. Images of tigers in India have been found in 3,000-year-old rock paintings by the Warli tribe and on the Harappan seals, discovered in the Indus Valley and dating from 2,500 BC.

Over the eons, tigers divided into eight subspecies. All eight subspecies survived intact until 1940 but, in the past 60 years, three of these subgroups -- the Javan, Bali and Caspian tigers -- were driven to extinction. The five surviving species are the Bengal, Siberian (Amurian), Sumatran, Indo-Chinese and South China tigers.

India is home to as many 3,500 tigers -- half the Earth's tiger population. The habitat of India's tigers ranges from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin and tigers inhabit tropical forests, deciduous forests, mangrove swamps and grass jungles.

The world's remaining tigers have become captives in 160 isolated "Tiger Conservation Units" -- wilderness bantustans surrounded by man-made roads, farms and villages -- scattered across Asia and Indonesia. Tigers can be found in all 18 of India's states but only 10 states are believed to host more than 100 of the surviving cats. A 1973 census estimated India's tiger population at 3,750 (a sharp drop from the previous census) but only 34% of these cats are found inside Project Tiger's reserves. The existing reserves only safeguard a small portion of the tiger's overall range.

A World without Tigers?
In order for a female tiger to reproduce and rear her cubs, she must have undisturbed habitat with sufficient food and water and no human incursions. Half the cubs will die before their first year; another 20-30% will die before they are old enough to reproduce.

India has one-sixth of Earth's population and occupies only three percent of the planet's land. Consequently, villages are encroaching on tiger habitat, bringing unwelcome encounters. When tigers kill a villager's livestock, the local people feel justified in taking "revenge" on the region's traditional top predator. (Tigers still kill between 40-50 Indians each year but more deaths are attributed to elephants, crocodiles, leopards and snakes.)

Valmik Thapar, the indefatigable environmentalist known as "the Indian tiger's best friend," explains the problem: "Villagers kill the tigers by pouring pesticides meant for killing termites on the carcass of their dead cattle, so that when the tiger comes to feed on the kill again, it gets poisoned." The preferred poisons are strychnine, rat poison and insecticide, all of which cause prolonged, excruciating deaths. Thapar suggests that, if the government provided "quick compensation," this would defuse these situations.

The Rise and Fall of Tiger Conservation
By the 1960s, decades of "trophy hunting" and government bounties had reduced the country's 40,000 tigers to a mere 2,000. The government finally took notice. The 1980s were "the best years" for tiger protection thanks to Indira Gandhi who banned tiger hunting in 1971. Gandhi also created Project Tiger, a conservation program that established protected reserves and the passage of the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act. These two initiatives combined, resulted in a subsequent (but sadly, short-lived) increase in the tiger tribe.

Project Tiger, which was proclaimed in 1973, initially named nine Tiger Reserves. By the mid-1980s 66 national parks and 421 wildlife sanctuaries had been designated as protected tiger reserves. Today there are 27 Tiger Reserves scattered across India and totaling 337,761 sq. km.

Since Gandhi's death, this initiative has been lost as New Delhi's attention drifted away from conservation. By 1984, India's growing population and socioeconomic problems had seriously undermined concerns for tiger conservation.

Until recently, it was thought that population growth and development posed the greatest threats to tiger survival. It is now clear that the biggest threat comes from poachers.

Today, India's once-protected tiger reserves are rife with poachers supplying a lucrative trade controlled by international organized crime. The Ministry of Environment and Forests wasted precious years denying the existence of the problem. The government seemed indifferent to the slaughter until a newspaper published the front-page news that, thanks to poaching, there wasn't a single tiger left alive in the Sariska Tiger Preserve.

The Reign of the Poachers
According to expert estimates, poachers have killed some 1,500 tigers in India over the past decade -- the greatest loss of tigers in world history. On October 10, 2003, Chinese Customs intercepted a truck enroute to Lhasa that contained 31 tiger skins, 581 leopard and 778 otter skins.

Author-filmmaker Belinda Wright, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), calls the trafficking of animal-skins "a thriving, uncontrolled market, which may explain the increase poaching of tigers in India that has left at least one tiger reserve devoid of tigers."

WPSI's Crime Database has documented more than 10,500 wildlife crimes effecting more than 200 species. The data has given the Indian government detailed information on poachers, traffickers and the regions at greatest risk.

According to the Database, 395 tigers were known to have been killed from 1994-1998. In 2001, 71 tigers were reported killed and another 35 deaths were recorded in 2003. The exact number of tigers killed is unknown but it is certainly much higher.

In January 200, police in Uttar Pradesh seized a shipment of claws, bones and skins from 50 tigers and 1,400 leopards. For every illegal skin they seize, authorities estimate that as many as 10 others slip through undetected. Thapar says hundreds of tigers are killed in India each year -- perhaps as many as one a day. "We live at the moment in a nightmare," Thapar says, "The best we can hope for is to have perhaps 1,000 wild tigers remaining in India." Within 10 to 15 years, he fears, there may be fewer than 500 tigers left in the wild.

Forest guards are supposed to prevent poaching in tiger reserves but the Indian government hasn't recruited new guards since 1986. As many as 40,000 of the government's 160,000 authorized field positions remain unfilled. The remaining guards are now in their fifties.

Surviving by the skin of their teeth? Tiger teeth for sale in a Taiwanese phramacy. Credit: EIA International
Tiger Parts
The WPSI demanded to know how poachers have been able "to come in and kill tigers, when a whole nation loves the animal?" WPSI discovered that much of the slaughter is "driven by money.... The oldest lure in the world." Networks of well-organized and well-connected criminals equipped with pistols and cellphones are on the prowl across Asia offering large financial rewards for tiger parts.

There is no market for tiger parts in India. The trade is driven solely by foreign demand -- mainly from China, where the skins are used for coats and the bones are ground for use in traditional medicine where practically every part of the tiger is sold as a cure: Eyeballs (to treat cataracts), blood (for laziness), whiskers (toothache), fat (hemorrhoids), skin (mental illness), testes (TB), nose (epilepsy). Tiger penises are famously reconstituted as aphrodisiacs in male potency potions.

"Poaching of tigers for the traditional Chinese medicine industry started in northern Indian in the mid-1980s," WPSI reports. "The illegal trade is now widespread and in the hands of ruthless, sophisticated operators, some of whom have top-level patronage."

One solution to this problem would be to encourage a transition from unsustainable traditional medicines relying on tiger parts. Many tigers might be spared, for instance, if the makers of Viagra were to flood the Asian market with affordable versions of its male-potency-enhancing product.

In 1994, WPSI's Belinda Wright spent six weeks underground posing as a tiger parts buyer. She was offered the skin and bones of 49 dead tigers.

Wright claims that WPSI has identified the three major wildlife traders active today but the Indian government refuses to pursue them. "The tiger has no secure future in India," Wright laments. "We've lost and I think we know we've lost. It is a tragedy of enormous proportion."

Wright's gloomy prognosis is echoed by P. K. Sen, a former director of Project Tiger, who concludes: "No one really cares whether the tiger survives. With 1 billion people and 800 million cattle, saving the tiger is simply not a priority in this country."

To Kill a Tiger
"A tiger can be killed for as little as just over a dollar for the cost of poison, or $9 for a steel trap," WPSI notes. "Much of the tiger poaching is done by tribals who know their forests well. They are usually paid a meager amount. In a case near Kanha Tiger Reserve. In May 1994, a trader paid four poachers $15 each for killing a tiger."

Most poaching is centered in states with the largest tiger populations -- Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Poachers have become so emboldened that a team of traffickers slipped into the Andhra Pradesh Zoo in the dead of night, killed a captive tiger and escaped with the animal's skin, blood, bones and organs.

The minimum penalty for possessing tiger parts under the Wildlife Protection Act is one year in prison (the maximum penalty is six-years' imprisonment). Unfortunately, while hundreds of poachers have been arrested, only two have ever been convicted of killing a tiger.

Skins smuggled into China are expertly tanned, cured, and hidden into suitcases for shipment abroad. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has pleaded with Chinese officials to increase airport inspections of luggage and has asked that signs be posted warning travelers that it is illegal to possess animal skins.

But it's not just China that's driving the tiger's extinction. In 2004, the London Telegraph reported that "Western tourists and businessmen... illegally buying tiger skins in China, are responsible for the slaughter of one of the world's most endangered species." An EIA investigation found that European customers were stoking the illegal market by offering up to £5,500 for tiger skin rugs, sofa covers and wall hangings. "The buyers see the skins -- complete with the animal's head -- as the ultimate in home décor," an EIA spokesperson told the Telegraph.

The EAI's report, "The Tiger Skin Trail," reported that the illegal trade exploded 10-fold between 1999-2004. Tiger skins have even appeared for sale on eBay.

While effective protection strategies have been proposed, few have been implemented. The Indian Board for Wildlife, India's top wildlife conservation body, is chaired by the Prime Minister but it has convened only twice over the past decade. The British Government has offered India £20,000 to create a specially trained anti-poaching team to fight wildlife crime but the Indian government failed to respond to the offer.

"Few of the tiger reserves have an established intelligence network and nearly 80% of our tiger reserves do not have an armed strike force or basic infrastructure and equipment to combat poaching," the WPSI complains, adding that the forest guards "are often out-gunned and out-manned by poachers." In 1998, three forest workers in the Manas Tiger Reserve were murdered by well-armed poachers.

Can you imagine a world without tigers? If not, contact the following officials: Hon. Prime Minister of India Shri Manmohan Singh, South Block, Raisina Hill, New Delhi-110011. Fax: (91-11) 230 16857 & 230 19545. Minister for Environment and Forests Shri. A. Raja, 2, Safdarjung Land, New Delhi - 110003.
Credit: Photo by Robin Hamilton / EIA International
States Turn a Blind Eye to Tiger Protection
In recent years, thousands of square kilometers of forest that should have been added to expand tiger reserves have been destroyed by the construction mines and hydroelectric dams that disrupt and flood tiger habitat and roads that have opened the forests to poachers.

In 1994, 3,000 hectares in Madhya Pradesh's Shivpuri Forests were released for hydroelectric development after the local chief wildlife warden stated the area held "no wildlife of any significance." In fact, some of the forestland was situated inside the Madhav National Park. When environmentalists asked for an explanation, India's Director of Wildlife Preservation replied that the state transferred title "without informing [the national government] that the land forms part of the national park." The resulting publicity halted the transfer but, in the interim, the project developers managed to demolish 500,000 trees. "Even today," WPSI reports, "the state government is indifferent to the central government ban on the Sindh phase II project, and continues work in the national park.... A serious violation of the law that governs our natural heritage had been detected, but to what avail?"

In another part of Madhya Pradesh the Gangau Sanctuary -- a vital buffer for the Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve -- was mysteriously removed from the official list of protected areas. When this disappearance was eventually discovered, a massive campaign by environmentalists succeeded in placing the sanctuary back on the protected list. Unfortunately, in the intervening decade, a sprawling diamond mine was carved into the forest.

According to WPSI, "effluents from diamond mining have found their way into the Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve, polluting the natural water bodies inside the protected area in clear violation of the Environment Protection Act. Huge dumps of mining waste and garbage stretch 10 meters into the sky near the entrance to the national park.... Gangau must surely be a prime example of how a sanctuary can be destroyed by the state government."

Meanwhile, in Goa, it is iron and manganese mining that threatens tiger habitat. The Tata Energy Research Institute estimates that 21,000 hectares (18% of the state's forests) have been lost to mining while mine dust has polluted both forest streams and the Mahdei River ecosystem. The mining operations are in clear violation of India's Environment Protection Act. Despite the fact that the operations earn millions each year, "not a rupee goes back to the protection of the environment."

There is now a proposal to protect the entire stretch of forests in the Netravalli Sanctuary in Goa's Western Ghats. This would create a vital corridor from tigers moving from Maharashtra to Goa to Karnataka. The only question is: "Is it too late?"

What You Can Do:

  • Demand that India provide more funding for forest guards.
  • Ask that the Ministry of Environment and Forests be separated to allow creation of a new, independent Ministry for Forests and Wildlife.
  • Join His Holiness the Halai Lama, WPSI and EIA in their international campaign to "Stop Wearing Tiger Skins."

    For more information contact:

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