Will Wild Tigers Survive the Year of the Tiger?

Photo courtesy USFWS

The prospects for wild tigers are grim. Last year, the BBC reported that officials at Panna National Park, one of India’s main tiger reserves, admitted it no longer has any tigers—the second such park in that country where the cat’s numbers have fallen to zero. Globally, there are more than four times as many captive tigers as free-roaming ones, experts estimate.

Development and habitat fragmentation are partly to blame. But people’s demand for the animals as exotic pets, or tiger parts for medicinal purposes, are also large contributors to the majestic creature’s decline.

Ted Williams wrote about the market for tigers in the U.S. in his Incite column:

Currently there are about 15,000 large cats—tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars—in basements, backyards, and roadside zoos in the 31 states that permit private ownership. These pets are forever mauling and killing their owners or the neighbors. One Oregon woman had her three lions shot after a mangled corpse, believed to be her husband, turned up in their cage. Particularly popular are white, blue-eyed tiger mutations, the result of inbreeding that leaves animals with hip dysplasia, cataracts, and other physical afflictions. Big cats and other wildlife from the nation's zoos, including those accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, are laundered or otherwise find their way, via wildlife dealers, into the pet trade.

Then there’s the black market in body parts. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uncovered a group that was buying tigers and leopards and, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, killing them to sell their parts:

Every body part was hawked. Meat was sold to Czimer's Game and Seafoods Inc., of Lockport, Illinois. Gallbladders and other organs went to the Asian medicine market. Hides and heads went to wealthy hunters for their trophy rooms. At least one member of the Safari Club International paid for the privilege of shooting a tiger in a horse trailer. Suddenly tigers purchased for $1,500 alive were fetching $10,000 as carcasses. According to court documents: On March 25, 1998, Will County corrections officer William Kapp of Tinley Park, Illinois, and Kevin Ramsey of Mason, Wisconsin, shot eight of nine tigers inside a Chicago warehouse, sparing the ninth because it was just a cub. On April 1 Kapp changed his mind and shot the cub, too.

Today, only 3,000 tigers remain in the wild—less than 3 percent of the population a century ago, Bill Marsh reported in The New York Times yesterday. In China, which banned the tiger product trade nearly two decades ago but remains a hotbed for poaching, the creatures are sought for various body parts, Marsh writes: penises (to promote virility), bones (for a variety of medical products), eyes (epilepsy treatment), tail (to treat skin diseases).

The article makes an interesting point about conservation efforts:

A leading conservationist implicates one more culprit: the world’s leading conservationists. Alan Rabinowitz, who heads Panthera, a group devoted to big cat preservation, says that ever-more-numerous tiger organizations are mostly competing for donors when they should be concentrating on protecting the most promising populations and fighting poachers, the cats’ foremost threat. Despite millions raised and spent in the last decade or so, wild tigers may have declined by half over that time.

Expect to hear a lot more about the plight of wild tigers in the coming months, Marsh writes:

The new Year of the Tiger, which began last month, will be a year of talking about the tiger, and urgently so. Thailand hosted a meeting of concerned Asian nations last month. This week a major conference — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — begins in Qatar, where tigers will be a marquee topic. A “summit” planned for Vladivostok, in September, will be hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia and the president of the World Bank.

We’ll keep you posted on updates.

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