Posts Tagged tigers

Mapping tiger smuggling Brendan Moyle Nov 05

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One of the first problems I ran into with researching tiger smuggling was the bias. A lot of the studies had been done by organisations based in India. Imaginative and creative arrows were being drawn across India, Nepal, into Tibet and over into the eastern provinces of China. The two big gaps were interdiction rates inside China, and the case of the Indo-Chinese tiger.

At the last SCB meeting I gave a paper on the breakdown of interdictions inside China. This data was obtained after some patient relationship building within China. The basic breakdown is as follows:

Figure 1: Smuggling Map 1999-2010

Province in coloured as deep-red are hotspots. These are provinces that have had multiple cases of smugglers being intercepted. The obvious characteristic is each is a province that borders range states with wild tiger populations.

Provinces in pale-red are low-interdiction cases. These are province that have had one arrest only.

The map also is instructive as it gives some idea of the scope of the international borders smugglers can take advantage of. It should come as no surprise that parts also show geographical trends also. Amur tigers are intercepted in the north (Heilong-Jiang/Jilin), Indo-Chinese & Bengali in the south (Yunnan), and Bengali in the west (Tibet).

Smuggler caught with 16 Tiger Cubs Brendan Moyle Oct 29

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A colleague drew my attention to this story out of Thailand
BBC-News Thailand

The story is principally about a truck-driver, paid to smuggle 16 tiger cubs from Thailand into Laos. The driver was caught when he attempted to avoid a police checkpoint. With 16 cubs, it is practically certain these same from a 'breeding facility' within Thailand. Tigers can produce 4 cubs in a litter but less is also common. Getting 16 cubs from the wild within Thailand would involve a very serious effort in search, risks of mortality in transporting cubs out of the wild, and risks of being caught within the reserves. It would be much easier and less risky to get the cubs from a captive source. Such animals would also be more familiar with people and hence, more sedate to transport.

The interception is indicative of two enforcement issues. First, crossing borders is the riskiest aspect of the illegal supply chain. From an economic perspective, the 'black-market firm' is better placed to pass this risk on to people who are willing to bear it at a lower price. The driver said he'd been paid 15,000 baht ($US 490 or £300) for the job. The second is that the size of the shipment (16 live animals) shows that enforcement agencies are being ineffective. A good sign that enforcement is effective is reductions in shipment size. This is the easiest thing for smugglers to do to reduce their risks. It does inflate their other costs (fewer units transported each trip drives up the average costs). So, the fact they are making large shipments here mean that they have little to worry about from law enforcement.

The story implies that the cubs are being smuggled for parts for traditional medicines. This seems unlikely. It would be much easier to kill the tigers within Thailand and transport the parts in a more cryptic way. This would also mean the smugglers did not have live animals to care for and feed for the duration of the trip. I suspect the most likely explanation is that this is the nucleus for a 'tiger farm' within Laos. Thailand and Vietnam are known to have breeding of tigers occurring in 'commercial quantities'. This may now be a reflection of the attempt to do the same within Laos. With actual wild tiger numbers in Indo-China being critically low, captive sources of tigers are much easier to locate and transport.

This also means that the CITES resolutions that call upon certain range states to end such breeding is largely being ignored.

Tribals ask to be poisoned first before tiger reserve established Brendan Moyle Mar 07

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One of the big threats facing tigers has been the loss of habitat. There’s about 1.5m square km of suitable habitat left in Asia. Nonetheless, outside of the Russian Far East, most of these exist as relatively small patches. Outside Russia, 36 sites (about half in India) contain nearly three-quarters of the world’s wild tiger population. These are sites that have the potential to maintain a wild population of 25 or more breeding females.

For many years, developing and enhancing the system of tiger reserves has been a conservation goal. Sadly this has been marked with somewhat conspicuous long term failure. The actual occupancy rate of tigers in suitable habitat has plunged by nearly 40%. Sites like Panna and Sariska have had their tigers completely extirpated by poachers.

Establishing and enhancing habitat for tigers remains an elusive goal. Nonetheless, the recent Global Tiger summit in St Petersburg has promised substantial aid to the creation and enhancement of such reserves.

The problem is that many potential reserves in Asia are also occupied by people. Some of these groups have no rights to be there, while others are often minority groups with a long historical tenure. Moving such peoples out of these forested areas becomes a challenge.

In theory, countries like India have a regulatory process that is supposed to be fulfilled to motivate such tribal groups out. This provides for first, ruling out the possibility of coexistence with tigers. If this is not possible, moving the people out needs the approval of the grahm sabha (village assembly that includes all adults). The compensation package to move out mandates a resettlement location that has all the basic amenities provided.

Nonetheless, the case of the Soliga tribals (adivasis) of the Biligiri Rangaswamy sanctuary shows that nothing is straightforward. About 370 sq km have been deemed critical tiger habitat and will require the eviction of about 1000 tribal households. Rather than consent and compensation being the norm, the suasion of the fait accompli are given as the only option. Consultation is merely telling forest dwellers what is in store for them. The response by the Soliga tribals has been to ask the Minister for Environment and Forests, to be poisoned first before the sanctuary becomes a reserve. (This is in an area where the actual tiger numbers have increased in the sanctuary without the enhancement a reserve should bring).

And while the Soligas tribals are being targeted for removal, leases for coffee-growing companies within the sanctuary (some 1800 acres) remain intact. It remains no surprise that throughout Asia, most poaching of tigers is still being done by local peoples, antagonistic towards the tiger.

(Main Source: )

Where the NY Times Editorial on Tigers Goes Wrong Brendan Moyle Feb 22

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The Feb 18 NY Times Editorial on conserving tigers, gets much of the issues wrong. Bear in mind, I have the almost unique pleasure of investigating the Chinese black market in a study over 2007-8 and this was published in a peer-reviewed study. In short, I do actually know what is going on in China.

One of the most intractable problems in species protection is the Chinese appetite for traditional medicines. … Despite bans – by China’s government and international agreements – on the sales of some materials and the near extinction of many of the animals used in traditional medicine, prices for animal parts continue to rise, and so do the incentives for poachers and sellers.

Good so far, note that bans are often claimed by conservationists to reduce demand. Not sure there is any evidence that tiger parts have increased in price as the data is too sparse and thinly spread to get any handle on that. But we do know the black market prices are high. So demand has not been addressed by this.

As The Times reported recently, one particularly horrifying practice is Chinese tiger farms, … In reality, their purpose is to raise tigers to be butchered and consumed.

Okay, I’m not entirely sure why tiger farms are specifically horrifying. Mostly the animals looked bored as there’s not a lot of enrichment activity. But other than that, they’re looked after (food, shelter, medicines) fairly well. Clearly the tigers are intended for commercial sale. And there is no problem in recognising that there has been ‘leakage’ from the Guilin farm. It is an entirely other thing to claim that this is a widespread activity sanctioned by authorities and something all other tiger farms do. It is fairly obvious that the Guilin farm is the only site in China that gets targeted for attention.

The tiger farms also do nothing to take pressure off the dwindling population of wild tigers. Chinese consumers believe parts from wild tigers have greater medicinal potency. In China, there are only some 20 wild tigers left. And Chinese demand – heightened by the farms and the beginning of the Year of the Tiger – has caused sharply increased poaching in India, which has only about 1,400 wild tigers left.

Ouch, there is absolutely no evidence that the tiger farms sustain demand by China for wild tigers. Most illegal traffic in tigers occurs in border regions away from the farms. There has been no illegal activity of wild tigers in the Guilin area. There has been a lot in Yunnan and Tibet where there are no farms.

Further, how many times do we have to point this out? India is the source of black-market tiger skins to the skin markets of central Asia (often Tibetans). The medicine markets in the east of China are largely supplied out of Indo-Chinese tigers. India hasn’t been losing tigers to medicine markets in China. They’re been losing them to decades-old skin markets.

Similarly, Indonesians who poach tigers for parts in the local markets, don’t care what someone in China is doing. The farms aren’t driving demand. It is centuries of culture in Asia of using tiger parts that drives demand.

The Chinese government seems to be doing little or nothing to shut down tiger farms or punish those who buy or sell tiger parts. …

This is just wrong. China has busted more conspiracies- with successful prosecutions- then the rest of Asia put together. When China does detect a conspiracy, the culprits have received severe penalties- up to and including death sentences.

It’s not China that has been lax with enforcement.

Unless China does both – shuts down the tiger trade and finds a way to alter consumers’ tastes – the wild tiger is almost surely doomed.

This completely misses the problem. Tiger farms are a minor issue. At best, they could alleviate some of the poaching pressure in Indo-China. At worst, they will have no impact on poaching. The reason is there is not a single black-market in Asia, and the black-market is not located solely in China. The black-market for tiger parts is diverse and operates in different markets and different countries.

The vast majority of the poaching episodes occurs as local peoples in range-states opt to kill them. That is probably where you need to be focusing efforts. The final markets are much harder to identify and target.

I wish people would stop getting so fixated on China’s tiger farms and actually look at realistic ways to crack these diverse black markets. Tiger farms are really a minor issue given the array of extinction forces currently facing tigers.


I can recommend the following paper on the Chinese black market:

Brendan Moyle (2009) The black market in China for tiger products Global Crime, Volume 10(1): 124—143

Problems and solutions to tiger poaching- are we getting any closer? Brendan Moyle Nov 02

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One of the important outcomes of the Kathmandu World Tiger Workshop, was the inability of some NGOs and governments to persuade China to give up tiger farming. The pressure has contined after the meeting. WWF has contributed a youtube video claiming that tiger farms are a ‘ticket to extinction’ (threat to wild tigers). The Chinese stance has been pretty consistent over the last few years.

First, the Chinese no longer believe that demand for tiger parts can be driven low enough to deter poaching. They might have believed this was possible in the mid-1990s, but acceleration in tiger poaching after they introduced their domestic ban has made them skeptics. An important point is that there are other conservationists who are also skeptics. Not everyone believes that the domestic ban has helped.

Second, they don’t believe that their farms generate demand for tiger teeth or claws in Indonesia, tiger meat in Vietnam and tiger skins in Kashmir and Tibet. Evidence from illegal activity within China prints a fairly clear picture. Smuggling and detection of illegal traffic of wild tiger parts occurs away from regions with tiger farms. It is proximate to regions that border range states. Nobody in China is inclined to believe that Traditional Chinese Medicine markets drive demand for bengali tiger skins (India’s bulk ‘illegal’ export). Most interdictions of tiger bone originate out of Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (of Indo-Chinese tigers).

In short, the black market for tiger parts is diffuse and widely separated. The failure of the conservation strategy to save tigers isn’t caused by China. Rather, a strategy that makes tigers worth $US50k to criminals is. Given that there are lots of different markets for different tiger products, there’s no single driver of poaching- nor is there any single solution.

Okay, so what should we be talking about to save tigers.

First, we need to be talking about supply-side approaches. The odds of us getting less than 300 people a year in Asia to want a fresh, poached tiger, is vanishingly remote. Demand-side measures aren’t going to kick in fast enough. It didn’t work with prohibition and alcohol- it doesn’t seem to work with wildlife.

Supply-side approaches mean things like trans-locations, successful re-wilding projects and, dare I mention it, tiger farms. Ex situ methods are becoming increasingly important as there are few safe areas left in Asia for tigers. That means, there are few reserves that are big enough, with enough prey items and where the local human population is tolerant of these big carnivores. Ex situ may be just second best solutions, but we don’t seem to be able to implement a first-best solution in most range states.

The second is losing this whole focus on tigers. The reality is that most poachers take many times more leopards, otters and other similar species. Most tiger poachers are really leopard poachers. So you need to concentrate interdiction and enforcement against leopard poachers. That way you will net in tiger poachers anyway. Ignoring the plight of some of these other species because they are not as charismatic as tigers, doesn’t help any of these targeted species.

Third, no-one has beaten an illegal market by concentrating at the consumer-end of the supply chain. The best way is to tackle the source. The reason (especially for wildlife) is that poachers tend to be geographically specific. They live close to, or inside reserves. With tigers especially, the cooperation of local people is crucial to the illegal network. It’s just more efficient to put resources into enforcement at this end. Conversely consumers of wildlife products are often harder to detect because they are dispersed (in different countries) and often resourceful enough to conceal their activities for long periods.

For tigers, this is a lot easier said than done. Not everybody regards tigers with great fondness, and proximity tends to increase their pest status. When Indira Ghandi launched Operation Tiger (via a system of dedicated reserves), locals who lived next to or inside the reserves were aghast. When told that tourists would provide compensation against stock losses (and loss of family members), someone pithily remarked that if tourists wanted to see tigers, the tigers should be released in Hyderabad.

Solutions to poaching?- how about ways to encourage it? Brendan Moyle Sep 30

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Wildlife poaching is a pretty serious threat to a lot of species. In theory, it’s one of those issues where the solution seems so clear, but implementing that solution is actually very, very hard.

We do though, seem to have a much better understanding of how to encourage and sustain poachers. Afterall, tigers in large parts of Asia are on the brink of extinction. Recent reports from Africa indicate that elephants are being poached at a greater rate than the horrors of the 1980s.

There are I think, two main proximate causes of these very conspicuous policy failures. First, we tend to treat poaching- because it is a wildlife problem- as a problem that biologists are trained to fix. But with all deference to my zoology colleagues, they don’t do courses in black-market economics and law enforcement. I wouldn’t trust many of my economist colleagues to undertake an ecological survey either. So there tends to be a lot of noise and talk, and policies that attack the symptoms of the trade get implemented. There’s not a lot of direct action to combat the main drivers of poaching.

The second, is that poachers and smugglers are assumed to be idiots. In other words, all you have to is bust one conspiracy or monitor one route into a country, and the smugglers will give up. They won’t figure out how to get around these enforcement measures. This leads to a lot of anti-poaching policy being more of the same. Repeat the same measures over and over in increasing intensity, and hope that this will fix the problem. Alas, ivory poachers have abandoned the legal supply routes in favour of routes using shipping containers, mislabeled as machine-parts or the like. It really doesn’t matter anymore how hard we squeeze the legal trade (irregular shipments from Southern Africa). The smuggler’s don’t care because they aren’t using that route.

So, how have we managed to inflate the levels of poaching for tigers and elephants so high again?

What we have learned in the wildlife smuggling business, is that trade bans in wildlife products only give you a short-term payoff. When you ban trade in certain wildlife products, then you get a drop in poaching because all the causal and small scale operations collapse. They don’t have the resources or expertise to get around the law enforcement measures. And if you’re really lucky, demand for the wildlife products will collapse. This collapse in demand doesn’t happen a lot.

So, poaching dips down after the ban. Demand in importing countries remains high though, so the black-market price starts to rise. This lures in new smuggling firms. These are criminal firms that have the resources, have the expertise and ability to get around the law enforcement agencies. In other words, you replace casual and small scale poachers with big, organised criminal conspiracies.

That I’m afraid, then makes the problem a lot worse. Organised criminal firms are harder to stop than small-scale firms. The lesson really is that a trade ban in wildlife products has a short-shelf life. It buys you time to implement better management systems. In Africa, the CITES ban in 1989 was accompanied by a period of 4 years of increased enforcement. This trickled away as Western donors curbed funding. As Asian stockpiles of ivory ran down, prices soared again and poaching accelerated.

Similarly with tigers, the trade bans in tiger-parts has lead to sky-rocketing black-market prices and the involvement of resourceful and clever criminal conspiracies. We’re effectively trying to save tigers by putting a bounty of US$50k on every wild tiger in Asia. So far that doesn’t seem to be working.

What we tend to get however, is the assumption because the ban did reduce poaching once, perpetuating the ban will someday, somehow, deliver the same reduction again.

Why do tigers get poached? Brendan Moyle Sep 22

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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.