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Tracking Tiger Trade: Disturbing Trends

Sep 26, 2014 01:06 PM EDT

Researchers and conservationists recently teamed up to help track India's flourishing illegal tiger trade, revealing some worrisome trends happening where this abhorrent activity occurs and is supplied.

That is, at least according to a study recently published in the journal Biological Conservation, which based its findings on about 40 years' worth of tiger trade data collected by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

According to an in-depth analysis of this data, there are 73 key districts in India which are likely to be active hubs for tiger poaching, and illegal trafficking and pelt trade. These hotspots run from southern and central India all the way up to the country's boarder with Nepal. The authors of the study even suggest that the Nepalese boarder is the main hub for international trade of tiger into China - a lucrative trade that faces little scrutiny.

The "Quirky Appetite" of China

Sharon Guynup, a well-known author journalist, and wildlife advocate, recently described in The New York Times how tigers in Southeast Asian countries like China are not just valued for their pelts and bones, but flesh as well.

In what Guynup describes as appalling "visual feasts," it has become a popular diversion among China's wealthy elite to watch a live tiger be slaughtered, butchered, and then prepared in a fine meal.

One man arrested in a police raid of one such "dinner party" in 2013 reportedly even told prosecutors that he had "a quirky appetite for eating tiger penis and drinking tiger blood."

Guynup suggests that the growing popularity of these bizarre feasts could be altering the state of the illegal trade world, and she might be right. (Scroll to read on...)

Right posterior paw and limb of a tiger.
(Photo : Flickr: Matt Hoffman/University of California Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology) Right posterior paw and limb of a tiger.

"We are seeing a disturbing shift in demand for some species from health to wealth - driven by the motivation of displaying new wealth rather than by use in traditional medicine. This is most evident with the use of rhino horn and tiger parts," John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), said in a recent statement.

The highly endangered pangolin is suffering from a similar fate. Read more about it here.

Scanlon is talking specifically about a CITES report on the illegal animal trade that was presented in Geneva last July. The report detailed some disturbing trends concerning pangolins, rhinos, elephants, and even cheetahs.

Big cats in particular were a major focus, as the number of seizures of live or frozen cats appears to have shot up in recent years, with India and Indonesia cited as major international black market providers. From 2010 to 2012, 61 live tigers were seized alone, with 74 percent of them confiscated in Southeast Asian countries - where the "feasts" Guynup spoke of are most popular.

Still, skins, a major focus of the Indian trade in particular, remain the dominant product on the market.

The Tiger Train Trend

Looking back to India, it is becoming clear that the market's changing appetite for tiger is leading to a change in how it functions. According to the Biological Conservation paper's authors, while hubs may have once been more geographically diverse, it has now become common that they are closer to railway routes than highways. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Smeet Chowdhury)

"Poaching gangs and middlemen prefer to use trains to transport tiger parts, since trains are well-connected to remote forested areas and usually crowded," Belinda Wright from WPSI recently told New Scientist. "Buses, in comparison, carry fewer people and can be easily stopped and checked."

Still, with such a predictable pattern, and a strengthening international dialogue about fighting environmental crime, it may be becoming easier for officials to hunt down the right groups.

In 2012, the WPSI recorded 32 cases of poaching and trafficking of wild tiger parts. This number rose to 42 in 2013, indicating that the trade was at least becoming more traceable.

But it could also indicate that the trade is just becoming more prevalent as well.

The Danger of Decline

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), where there was once hundreds-of-thousands of big cats roaming the Asian continent, there could be as few as 3,200 wild tigers left in all the world. An even smaller portion of that number (about 450) consist of the Amur tiger, a majestic top predator that stalks the frozen forests of Siberia.

And while poaching plays a huge part in their decline, these animals are passively declining as well, simply disappearing along with their habitats as climate change and deforestation encroach on their hunting grounds.

Indonesia alone - a primary hub for tiger trafficking - cleared more than 840,000 hectares of forest in 2012, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That's nearly twice as much clearance as Brazil's annual average - a stunning fact when the deforestation of Brazil's vast Amazon rainforest has been the subject of controversy for so long.

In a response to the study, Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said (via Blue and Green Tomorrow), "These findings are an urgent wake up call. Forest destruction is driving Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions [and] pushing animals like the Sumatran tiger to the edge of extinction." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Greenpeace/Ulet Ifansasti)

In fact, Greenpeace has been waging war against paper companies in Southeast Asia for some time now, outraged at the rate at which they are tearing down shrinking tiger habitats.

And unfortunately for tigers, as their habitats and numbers dwindle, the temptation to poach them just increases.

Earlier this year, United Nations investigators and INTERPOL released a new report at the United National Environmental Assembly that details how the prevalence and profitability of environmental crimes has seen a dramatic rise in the last several years.

That's largely because, like with any business, the availability of the product drives the price. And tigers are one product in high demand, with low supply.

The result is an increased interest in environmental crime, in which criminal activity centers more and more around activities like the illegal tiger trade, which leads to social unrest for all.

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