With poaching continuing to drive wild tiger populations closer to extinction, it’s important to understand why tigers get poached. Reviewing some of the news reports on tiger poaching, I fear we’re not really coming to grips with the causes. It’s not all down to the traditional Chinese medicine market. Please note that I am not a ‘keyboard-conservationist’ and have visited smuggling hot-spots, researched and published work on the tiger black-market.
Poaching alas, is driven by several different factors.
First, tigers get poached because they are regarded as a pest. Villagers and farmers who live adjacent to tiger-reserves, lose livestock to tigers when these cats move out to hunt. Tigers also represent a threat to people (which is why for a long time, Asian governments culled tiger populations).
So, local villagers and farmers kill the tigers (illegally) and get away with it. This source of poaching has nothing to do with other markets.
Second, tigers get poached for their skins. Tiger skins are in demand right throughout Asia (and possibly further afield). One of the most important markets for this has been Tibet, but there is nothing exclusive about this market. This market is not supported by the Chinese TCM market. It is also a large market. The Indian poacher Sansar Chand sent hundreds of tiger skins to buyers in Tibet (alongside thousands of leopard skins).
Third, tigers get poached for curios and tonics. In many parts of Asia, tiger teeth or claws were used by local communities. E.g. in Vietnam, tiger meat or parts were used to make tonics.
Finally, tigers get poached for the bones. Tiger bones are used to make medicine to treat severe bone diseases in humans. This is the important Chinese Traditional Medicine Market. Note however, that there are Chinese communities living in other parts of Asia as well as the rest of the world. We are fairly certain that not all of these bones are ending up back in mainland China.
This highlights the problem with devising anti-poaching schemes. If we think suppressing the illegal bone market in China is going to stop the skin-trade out of India or illegal ‘pest’ destruction by locals, the outcome is going to be very disappointing.