TRAGEDY FOR TIGERS
Article and Images by Christina Bush
Tigers are among the most striking and unique animals on our planet. A hundred years ago there were around 100,000 wild tigers roaming the swamps, forests and tundras of Asia. Their territories stretched from the Russian Far East to Turkey, Siberia and southward into Bali. They have only ever lived in Asia, although some scientists believe, based on fossil findings, that they may have roamed into what is now Alaska during a time when the Bering Strait was a land bridge. They have never lived in Africa. Wild tiger numbers have fallen by about 95% over the past 100 years. Today conservationists estimate that there are as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild and they are steadily being pushed to the verge of extinction. Threats come from illegal trade in the black market, poaching, decimation of their habitats, and loss of prey...making them one of the earth’s most critically endangered creatures. If poaching continues at its current rate, it is predicted that many, if not all, of the tiger clans will be completely wiped out in the next two decades.
Tigers are forced to compete for space with dense human populations, face unrelenting pressure from poachers, suffer retaliatory or trophy killings and experience habitat loss across their ranges. All tigers, no matter where they live, seem to be under attack and threats against them continue to mount. There were once 9 subspecies of tigers, but today there are only 6 remaining...the Royal Bengal, Indo-Chinese, Siberian (also called Amur), Malayan, South China and Sumatran. The Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers are now extinct. The world’s forests are lost at a rate of 36 football fields per minute, according to the World Wildlife Federation. This extensive habitat loss has forced wild tigers to live in small, isolated areas of their remaining habitat, making it harder for them to reproduce. Increased road networks also leaves them more vulnerable to the wrath of poachers and overhunting of tiger prey species.
The majestic tigers are the largest of all the Asian big cats. At the top the food chain as carnivore and primary predator, they weighs in between 300-675 pounds. They are one of the earth's most culturally important and beautiful animals. However, they are also among the most vulnerable and threatened of all the species species. These majestic cats are fierce predators with a calculated intelligence that makes them one of the leaders of their natural environments. The tiger is the largest of all the big cats sitting at the very top of the food chain as a carnivore and primary predator, weighing in at between 300-675 pounds, with the Siberian (also known as the Amur) tiger being the largest of the six remaining species. This regal and magnificent symbol of nature’s beauty and power is hunted recreationally for sport/trophies in their own habitats as well as canned hunting ranches across the United States. Despite their fearsome reputation, most tigers avoid human conflict. Many cultures have long revered tigers as icons of beauty, luck, power and charm. Tiger images appear in cave paintings in India and in many shrines and temples across Asia. Owning tiger skins and drinking tiger bone wine are valued as status symbols and the tiger is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.
India holds over half of the world’s wild tiger population at around 1,700 individuals, according to the latest tiger census report released in 2011 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. The others reside in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and the Russian Far East. There are said close to be up to 10,000 tigers in captivity on tiger farms for commercial purposes in China and around 5,000 in captivity in the United States. They are not just found in zoos and rescue centers, but also in the hands of circus operators, private owners and canned hunting ranches. In some states in America the only requirement to legally own a tiger is to be 18 years old, making it easier to buy a tiger than adopt a dog or cat from a local animal shelter.
Only 7% of historic tiger habitat still contains tigers. All five sub-species have been on the Endangered Species List since 1970. An agreement was signed by most of the world’s nations that aims to protect tigers by ensuring that international trade does not threaten their survival. Despite efforts to protect the species, consumer demand for tiger parts poses the greatest threat to the survival of tigers, which are being hunted by poachers for their bones, skins, teeth, claws and even penis for use in traditional Asian medicine practices. These items are highly prized on the black market stimulating great demand. The annual revenue generated underground from the sales of tiger skins and bones is estimated at around $5 million (United Nations office on Drugs and Crime). Hong Kong is the main importer of Chinese tiger products, accounting for nearly half of it annual business.
International trade of tigers and their parts is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and all tiger range countries and national legislation protecting the species from poaching and trade. However, a black market stimulating consumer demand fuels a vicious cycle of poaching. Under the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act it is illegal to import or sell any products intended for human consumption that contain and substance derived from rhinoceroses or tigers. In 1993 the Chinese government banned the trade and use of tiger parts, but it still takes place due to the cultural beliefs in the power of the parts. Policing efforts in Asian countries touch only a very small percentage of Chinese medicine stores. Owners often get word that a raid is about to occur and they have time to hide or disperse any tiger parts they may have in stock. Russia has also become a key supplier in the tiger trade due to economical, social and political instability. Poaching one tiger can bring ten years’ income on the black market. A dead tigers parts are worth up to $50,000 US on the black market. (Tigers in Crisis) Some zoos may even be responsible for killing, skinning, dismembering and putting the tiger parts up for sale on the black market, according to the Zoological Society of London.
For more than 1,000 years the use of tiger parts has been included in the tradition Chinese medicine regimen. Because of the tiger’s strength and assumed mythical powers, the Chinese culture believes that parts from the tiger can treat chronic ailments, cure disease and replenish the body’s essential energy. The use of endangered tiger products and their medicines is seen as a symbol of high status and wealth. In many Chinese restaurants tiger parts are a delicacy that is served at special private banquets. Tiger claws are used as a sedative for insomnia, teeth are used to treat fever, bile is used to treat convulsions and meningitis in children, penis used in love potions as an aphrodisiac, feces used to treat boils, hemorrhoids and alcoholism. The brains are mixed with oil and rubbed on the body to cure laziness and acne. The heart is cooked and eaten for strength, courage and cunning. The tail is rubbed on the body to cure skin problems. The eyeballs are rolled into pills to treat epilepsy and convulsions. And, the penis, which sells for around $1,300, is eaten raw for virility and sexual performance. These so-called medicinal treatments are completely unproven by science and have absolutely no real medical value. It is believed, however, that today at least 60% of China’s billion-plus inhabitants use medicines of this type.
In Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup goes for $320 and is considered an aphrodisiac, a pair of tiger eyes (to fight malaria and epilepsy) is $170, and powdered tiger bone (for treating ulcers, rheumatism and typhoid) brings up to $1450. Tiger skins, which sell for around $35,000, are traditionally prized among Tibetans to embellish robes for ceremonial occasions and tiger teeth are more expensive than ivory. Claws, teeth and whiskers are believed to provide good luck and protective powers. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) believes that at least one tiger is killed daily for its use in traditional Chinese medicines, wine, pills and powders. Tiger bone tonic wine has been increasing drastically in price in recent years as the have become highly prized in South East Asia. The well-organized and ruthless organized crime groups fuel the poaching of tigers and the selling of their parts. The rising demand for tiger parts and rapid increase in the price of tiger bone is an irresistible incentive for them. The bones can be crushed and made odorless, disguising it as many other types of bones which are not illegal to trade. The bones of a single tiger only weigh around 22 pounds before being crushed so unfortunately, many are needed for their practices.
Fewer than 50 wild tigers remain in China, close to 10,000 are held captive on huge commercial tiger farms where they are bred and then killed to make tiger bone wine and other tonic products. For every one wild tiger alive in the world today, there are three “farmed” tigers in China. Farming tigers for trade creates market demand for dead tigers and motivates poachers throughout Asia to keep slaughtering these majestic creatures. An estimated 800 to 1,000 tigers are born on tiger farms each year. In these farms the tigers live lives of imprisonment in rows of squalid sheds, sometimes in perpetual darkness. The cubs are separated from their mothers at three months old so the mothers can breed again to produce more tigers for the farms. At around one year old they are killed and their bodies taken apart to be distributed for commercial gain. The captive tigers are often kept in miserable and cramped conditions with very little, if any, monitoring to make sure the animals health and welfare is considered. Behind rusted bars, skeletal tigers lie panting on filthy concrete cage floors, covered in sores and untreated wounds. The bodies are so emaciated that they are little more than pitiful piles of fur and bones dying slowly from neglect and starvation. Death actually comes as a welcome release.
Tigers are a conservation dependent species, requiring large forests with access to water and undisturbed areas in which to breed. They also depend on the efforts of humans to have compassion for them. Because poaching is so prominent in India, Russia and South East Asia, additional measures are needed to curb the demand for endangered tiger parts. The only solution is to eliminate the demand and promote human-tiger coexistence. Commercial trading in tiger parts and its derivatives is simply not in the interest of wild tiger conservation. Fortunately there are viable alternatives to all these ailments without murdering tigers for the use of their parts. If more people and organizations not respond to the plight of wild tigers and the needs of the communities that share their homes with them, we will witness the loss of one of the world’s most irreplaceable natural wonders of our lifetime.