The illegal trade in wildlife parts is now worth 10 billion dollars a year, making it the third most valuable illegal commodity in the world, following drugs and weapons. On the Chinese calendar, the next Year of the Tiger is 2022, which is ironic for the country who uses the tiger as a cultural symbol, because it may be the year in which the feline becomes extinct.
A century ago, there were 100,000 tigers living in the wild among 25 countries. They now live in less than 7% of where they spanned then, and their habitats have been reduced by 40% in just the last decade. With that said… is it really possible for us to lose such beautiful creatures forever?
Actually, we already have.
Until the 1930’s, there were nine subspecies of tigers. In 1937, the last well-documented Bali Tiger was killed in west Bali. Around the 1950’s, the Caspian Tiger became extinct due to hunting as well. The Javan Tiger lasted until about 1980. Since 1987, when tigers met the criteria for being “threatened with extinction,” over a thousand more have been killed. According to Yuri Fedotov – the head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime – about 150 are poached every year. There are about 3200 remaining in the wild today.
Why are tiger parts so highly sought? The greatest demand comes from China. Traditional Chinese medicines use practically every part of the tiger because they are thought to have special medicinal powers. For example, bones allegedly treat ulcers, typhoid, malaria, burns, and a slew of other conditions. Whiskers are worn as protective talismans, skin is used as clothing or as a status symbol, and penises are used as sexual tonics, aphrodisiacs, or to increase virility.
There’s just one problem with these treatments, and the many more I haven’t mentioned – they don’t do anything. They are the Chinese equivalent to medieval witchcraft, or as Yale University neurologist Stephen Novella put it, “a pseudoscientific and superstitious tradition that should be relegated to the history books.” In 2005, avid conservationist Richard Ellis authored the book “Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine,” in which he documented the atrocities involved in obtaining animal parts which have no positive effects on our health, from nearly extinct animals. Novella insists there should be a global outcry to end this practice.
Some large conservation efforts have been made. For example, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, recently increased the maximum penalty for the intentional killing of tigers and other endangered animals to 12 years in prison. China, the biggest culprit, banned tiger bones from being used in approved medicines in 1993, but to little avail. China still has unlawful “tiger farms,” and with the recent increase in the standard of living in China, more consumers can afford to pay, which accelerates their consumption, and thus, their extinction. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has done much for tiger conservation, hosted a “tiger summit” last November. At the summit, he committed to trying to double the world’s wild tiger population by 2022, along with leaders from all other countries in which wild tigers live, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
World Bank president Robert Zoellick is behind the Global Tiger Initiative, a project that brought the international conservation community together. He believes that educating the public is a good way to reduce demand for tiger parts. Rick Thomas, a traveling magician from America, agrees. He says that when it’s time in his magic show to reveal his pet tiger (of which he owns six), he becomes more of a conservationist than a performer. “The only thing we can do is educate. We need to stop people, specifically from Asia, using the tiger for medications.” Kim Sherlaw, executive director of the Norfolk SPCA, believes this is just a ruse “to placate animal welfare concerns,” but she refused to see Thomas’ show, so she may be prejudging. Jonathan Nisbett, a veterinarian who has checked up on Thomas’ tiger in the past (finding no maltreatment) attended his show. The use of the tiger is a “double-edged sword,” he says. “It adds to the draw, but then presents the opportunity for education as well.”
Other celebrities like Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, and Leonardo DiCaprio have been vocal about conserving the felines. DiCaprio even donated $1,000,000 to the World Wildlife Fund. Jackie Chan has also become an advocate for stopping the tiger trade.
There have also been donations from people like Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan, clearly showing that celebrities from all around the world are using their fame to help support the cause. But just as Zoellick suggested, the most important preventative measure is education.
One for all, and all for nothing
Poaching is Even Worse than it Sounds
Award-winning filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert gave an exquisite TED talk last December on big cats. I encourage you to watch it for the inspirational and amazing tales they tell and the scenes they capture on film, if not for the educational value. For example, they mention that since lion bones and tiger bones look the same, the lion bone trade is expected to wipe out all the tigers. Furthermore, if lions disappear, whole ecosystems in Africa will vanish, along with the the yearly $80-billion ecotourism revenue stream there. Also, disrupting the ecosystem may impact human health later on. Without such predators to prey on other animals, we may become more prone to illness, as animals lower on the food-chain become too populous and spread their diseases to us.
As if that wasn’t enough, the anthropological ramifications of one lion kill are far worse than they seem – far worse than I imagined. Most people don’t realize that this is not a one-to-one ratio. A poacher doesn’t just take a shot and collect a kill. When social psychology plays a part in the animal kingdom, it’s never quite so simple.
“When a male lion is killed, it completely disrupts the whole pride. A new male comes into the area and takes over the pride… and, of course, first of all kills all of the cubs, and possibly some of the females that are defending the cubs. So we’ve estimated that between twenty to thirty lions are killed when one lion is hanging on a wall somewhere in a far-off place.”
Stopping the Orange and Black Market
No matter what the feline, poaching needs to be stopped, because the future is looking pretty grim for them. The only way to stop this is to make a concerted effort not to use endangered animal products (e.g., not using pelts as arbitrary status symbols) and by educating consumers in order to eliminate the demand for false treatments. Traditional Chinese medicines don’t work, which is why they never stack up to controlled experiments.
Scientists measure effective population by genetic diversity of the largest big cat in the animal kingdom. Though about 500 Siberian Tigers exist in the wild, a recent study has shown that they have an effective population of 14. This is because they’re highly susceptible to disease or genetic disorders due to a “genetic bottleneck” – a lack of genetic diversity among the population. This could be the next tiger subtype to go.
Clearly, the odds are against endangered species, though a recent landscape analysis says that we should have enough appropriate space for over 10,000 tigers. Yet the increase in human population means resources gradually becoming more scarce, which jeopardizes wildlife and their habitats. John Sellar, the chief enforcement officer of CITES, suggests that conservation efforts for the tiger are so important because they may set a precedent for the future. “If we can’t do it for the tiger,” he asks, “are we going to be able to do it for anything else?”