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It’s sobering to realise that around 1900, there were still an estimated 100,000 tigers living in the wild in Asia. Since then, the Javan, Bali and Caspian sub-species have become extinct. The South China subspecies is in a very tenuous positions. And most range states now only have a few hundred left- Russian has between 400-500 Amur tigers in Siberia. There could be as few as a total of 3000 left in the wild. That’s pretty much a 97% crash in numbers in a single century.

Yawning Tiger

What makes this somewhat more tragic is the enormous amount of effort many countries have put into trying to stabilise tiger numbers. Since the 1970s, resources have been poured into tiger conservation. It is a relatively easy animal to raise funding for. Numbers posited at tiger meetings are in the order of $US100m a year on tiger conservation. If money and good intentions could save the tiger, then that would have succeeded years ago.

There are growing grounds for pessimism that arresting this decline is possible. The main problem for tigers is they face three strong extinction pressures.

The first is that there’s simply not enough habitat. Tigers are a large carnivore that need a lot of territory. Few Asian countries have large areas of pristine, prey-filled forests for tigers to live in. Reserves are thus often too small, they border human settlements. People sometimes illegally, or sometimes through indigenous occupation, also live in these reserves.

Human-tiger conflict exacerbates the problems with too few, too small, reserves. Local villagers of forest dwellers don’t like sacrificing their livestock or their children to 1/4 ton monsters. And even where these conflicts can be managed down, humans compete for prey items. Local hunters will take the small deer and other wild animals that tigers also depend on. Ultimately however, most local populations of people don’t want to see a doubling of tiger numbers.

The small size and scope of most reserves contributes to the next problem. Wild tiger populations are now getting very small and very fragmented. Poor genetics- inbreeding depression- is becoming a growing risk. This may already be occurring in the South China population where breeding success is getting limited.

The immediate threat is poaching. In most parts of Asia, poaching has continued almost unhindered by enforcement efforts. Partly this is because poachers come from and are familiar with the same forests as the tigers. Just as tigers are difficult to identify, so are the poachers. They are adept hunters with bush-craft skills, operating in areas they’re familiar with. Very few actual poachers ever get caught.

The next problem is that tiger parts are an infrequently traded black-market good. There is no constant stream using the same supply routes operating. Where, when and how tiger parts will be trafficked is almost completely unpredictable. This makes it nearly impossible to target borders for instance, for interdiction efforts. This issue is made worse by corruption. Getting effective levels of enforcement has just not been possible in most instances.

What is also somewhat shocking is the fact that the black-market in tiger-parts has been so badly researched. When I started investigations in 2007, it quickly became apparent that most facts circulating about the tiger-part black-market were simply made up.

Everybody agrees that poaching is a very serious threat. Many argue that it is the most immediate threat. Yet for most of the last 30 years, this threat has not been analysed. This was brought home by the CITES Notification to Parties No. 2010/011 (released 26 May 2010).

It begins by stating:

  1. At its 15th meeting, the Conference of the Parties (Doha, 2010) noted there was no adequate overview of criminal activities affecting tigers, which pose a considerable threat to the species

In effect, even by 2010 after a massive and unending fall in tiger numbers, we’re still largely ignorant about the organisation of the black-market in tiger parts. The most urgent threat facing tigers has received nothing like the attention it needs.

The difficulty we face with tigers and this black-market actually comes down to one, obvious, feature. There is no single, unified black-market. This is not like the black-market in elephant ivory where you had just one product to stop. Tigers- largely for cultural reasons- have their parts traded in local and international markets. They supply all kinds of different products- skins, bones, teeth, claws, whiskers, meat & penises. The challenge is not deterring one black-market in one country. The challenge is we have to deter several separate and independent operating in different countries.

Sadly, at this point in time, there is no feasible strategy to do so.