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Illegal Tiger Trade: Why Tigers Are Walking Gold

 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Cat Watch

Posted by Sharon Guynup
February 12, 2014
Talking Tigers: Part 2 of a 12-part series

In December 2013 at the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in India, we finally got the word: Three confiscated steel-jawed poacher’s traps would be brought to the Forest Department office at one o’clock, and we’d been granted permission to film them. We grabbed our equipment and jumped in the car. The rutted, mostly-dirt roads were so bad that it would take 45 minutes to drive some seven miles to get there.

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter and I had come to Central India to shoot the short video above, Battling India’s Illegal Tiger Trade, on one of the most devastating threats facing the world’s last 3,000 wild tigers: poaching.

Tigers are walking gold, worth a fortune on the black market. The demand is huge and prices continue to skyrocket. The cats are being slaughtered across India and their entire range, mostly for their bones and their magnificent pelts. (Related: “‘Cyberpoaching’ Feared as New Threat to Rare Wildlife“)

The bones are smuggled almost exclusively to China, used in tiger bone wine—a pricey traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tonic thought to impart the tiger’s great strength and vigor. But almost every part of the tiger is valued in TCM. Most of the skins end up in China, too, used for high-end tiger skin furniture and other luxury décor.

It’s rarely poor locals that are poaching tigers—it’s organized gangs. Tigers are part of a massive wildlife trade that’s run by sophisticated international crime syndicates, the same trade that’s wiping out elephants, rhinos and so many other species. It’s a 19 billion dollar a year business.

We were working in India with two of the world’s foremost experts on the topic, Belinda Wright and Nitin Desai. In 1994, Wright heard rumors that outsiders were targeting big cats in Kanha Tiger Reserve, near where she lived. Tigers she’d spent years filming for her Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary, ‘Land of the Tiger’ were suddenly disappearing. 

She figured out what was happening when a shop owner approached her in a nearby town one day. “I’ve got four fresh tiger skins. Do you know anyone who wants to buy them?” he whispered. She orchestrated a sting operation. Five people were arrested, uncovering a tiger-smuggling operation.

Later that summer, she and a friend traveled throughout the state to gauge the situation. “To my horror,” she said, “we were offered the skins and bones of 39 dead tigers, with offers in practically every city and town we investigated.” They identified 42 cat poachers and 32 dealers.

Wright abandoned her filmmaking career and founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India(WPSI), an organization she’s led ever since. Their focus: to gather information on wildlife crime—especially involving tigers—and assist enforcement authorities in arresting alleged criminals and curbing wildlife crime. (Related: “Tiger Poachers Get Stiff Sentences“)

Desai signed on in 1998. He now directs WPSI’s anti-poaching activities here in what is known as the “Central Indian Tiger Landscape.” About a quarter of the country’s 1,800 remaining Bengal tigers live here in India’s heartland, protected within a string of 13 tiger reserves. Tadoba-Andhari reserve, where we’re headed, is one of those tiger havens.


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TIGER DEATHS IN 2017
 Mortality                 64
 Poaching &             
 Seizures                  27
___________________
       Total                   91

TIGER DEATHS IN 2016
 Mortality                  82
 Poaching &              50
 Seizures                   
___________________
       Total                  132


TIGER POACHING 1994-2016

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LEOPARD DEATHS IN 2017
 Mortality                227
 Poaching &            138
 Seizures             
___________________
       Total                   365



LEOPARD DEATHS IN 2016
 Mortality                 282
 Poaching &             154
 Seizures             
___________________
       Total                  436
     

LEOPARD POACHING 1994-2016


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Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve Map 

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