Where are the tigers?
End tiger farming to protect wild tigers
Fewer than 4,000 wild tigers survive worldwide, largely due to persistent poaching for their body parts to feed demand in China and South-East Asia.
Meanwhile, more than 7,000 tigers are kept in captivity in facilities in China, South-East Asia and South Africa. The vast majority of these facilities provide no benefit whatsoever to wild tigers: no tiger bred in these facilities has ever been released to the wild. The absence of coordinated breeding to maintain genetic diversity and the conditions in which the tigers are reared, including extensive human interaction and keeping many tigers together in unnatural ‘herds’ at some facilities, render the animals unsuitable for release in to the wild.
Far from protecting the species, many facilities in these countries have been implicated in illegal trade in tigers and their parts and derivatives, feeding an insatiable demand that is driving poaching not just of the world’s few remaining wild tigers but also other big cat species such as leopards, lions and jaguars, the parts and derivatives of which may be marketed to consumers as tiger.
Moreover, consumer surveys in China have consistently indicated a preference for wild tiger bone over bone from captive sources. Trade from captive facilities cannot satiate demand for tiger parts and instead serves to stimulate demand and complicate law enforcement efforts, with consequences for all big cats.
The interactive map below provides a snapshot of facilities where tigers are kept in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and South Africa – key countries that have been implicated in legal and illegal tiger trade in parts and derivatives of captive-bred tigers. Facilities that have been implicated in trade and/or stockpiling tiger parts are indicated with a red marker on the map. Not all facilities on the map have been implicated in trade; these are included to demonstrate the scale of the captive tiger problem and to encourage other stakeholders to share information on the location of captive tigers.
Wild tigers are now functionally extinct in Vietnam and Laos, and on the brink of extinction in China. Only about 220 wild tigers survive in Thailand. While tigers are not native to South Africa, at least 280 are kept in 44 facilities in the country, which exported 27 captive-bred tiger specimens for commercial purposes between 2006-15 and has been named as a source for tiger parts seized from illegal trade in China. The substantial volumes of lion bone, teeth and claws exported from South Africa also present opportunities for laundering of tiger products, which are very difficult to distinguish from lion.
The black markers on the map represent incidents in which law enforcement agencies have seized live tigers or tiger parts and products from illegal trade that are suspected to derive from captive sources. Based on EIA records, at least 115 such incidents have occurred since 2000, involving more than 500 individual tigers. This figure very likely represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale of illegal tiger trade through and from captive facilities.
The captive tiger breeding industry has ballooned thanks to government support and lax enforcement. Government policies in China have enabled and encouraged the breeding of tigers in captivity for commercial purposes and EIA investigations have uncovered a legal domestic trade in the parts and products from captive-bred tigers. South African legislation allows for the commercial breeding of tigers and domestic and international trade in captive-bred tigers. In Laos, illegal trade is flourishing in trade hubs in the total absence of enforcement, while in Thailand and Vietnam facilities masquerading as zoos are taking advantage of weak enforcement to engage in illegal trade.
Conversely, India, home to the majority of the world’s remaining wild tigers, does not allow commercial breeding of tigers or any commercial trade in their parts and products, and these policies are strictly enforced.
EIA is campaigning for the closure of commercial tiger breeding facilities and a zero-tolerance approach to all trade and demand for tiger parts and derivatives from all sources. The future of the wild tiger will depend on the governments of all tiger range states and countries implicated in tiger trade adopting policies that place value on tigers in the wild, instead of viewing them as commodities to be traded for profit.
EIA would like to thank Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) for information provided on facilities in Vietnam and Thailand.
Investigating the tiger trade
During the course of the past 20 years, EIA Tiger Campaign investigators have been at the frontline of investigating and documenting trade in tigers and other Asian big cats. That includes investigating the organised criminal networks operating between India, Nepal and China in partnership with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, as well as the trade in ‘farmed’ tigers in China.
Research and analysis of seizures over time reveals a cyclical trade pattern; a critical reminder to decision-makers to continue to invest not only in intelligence-led law enforcement to disrupt persistent networks and offenders, but to invest much more in demand reduction campaigns.
Well-established trafficking routes that are decades old are still being used to move wild tiger parts across borders between India-Nepal-China, India-Myanmar-China-Laos and Laos-Vietnam-China. You can get a glimpse into where tiger trade is happening from the maps here.
We are excited to announce a new EIA project, supported by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, to enhance enforcement to end tiger trade in South-East Asia.
The funding will support a partnership between EIA, Education for Nature Vietnam and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand to map the criminal networks trading wild and captive tiger parts in the Mekong, generate information that can be used by law enforcers and galvanise international political and public support to end the trade. The project builds on previous work conducted by EIA and ENV.
A tiger’s stripe pattern is as unique as human fingerprints. EIA investigators capture images of tiger skins using hidden cameras during field investigations, but there are also a lot of tiger skins being offered for sale online and via social media platforms.
EIA is launching a new project to build a reference database of these images, along with images of tiger skins that have been seized and images of tigers in “farms”. We will be inviting other organisations undertaking similar work to participate so that together we can cross-reference and analyse tiger skins in trade.
For more information on this initiative, contact Samantha Rainsford via samantharainsford[at]eia-international.org
End tiger farming – Zero Demand for Zero Poaching
One of the most significant threats to the survival of tigers continues to be demand for their body parts.
Tiger skins are sold as decorative rugs for personal use or bribes, tiger bones are used in traditional medicines and used to make wine sold as a prestigious gift and a virility product. Meat is consumed as a delicacy, while teeth and claws are bought as charms. Almost every body part of the tiger is traded by criminals for massive profit and the trade is enabled by corruption.
The main market for tiger products is China and there is a market for a medicinal tiger bone “glue” in Vietnam. Chinese buyers are consuming and purchasing tiger bone wine and other body parts in free-for-all markets in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, in the capital Vientiane and in the lawless China-Myanmar border town of Mong La.
In addition to manufacturers in China, tiger bone wine is being brewed in North Korea, Myanmar and Laos. Trade in raw tiger and processed tiger parts online is rife, including on social media platforms such as Facebook and WeChat, in both open and closed networks of dealers.
The trade threat is exacerbated by the fact that there has been a marked increase in tiger ‘farms’ in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, where tigers are being kept – and are often intensively bred – for trade. Facilities which keep tigers include not just large speed-breeding operations but also circuses, small backyard enclosures and facilities masquerading as zoos; for example, the discovery of 70 dead tiger cubs, skins and bone products at the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand earlier last year.
Parts from captive tigers end up in domestic and international trade illegally and, in the case of China, in legal domestic trade. This perpetuates the desirability and acceptability of tiger parts and stimulates demand. It undermines enforcement as parts of farmed and wild tigers end up being sold in the same places and it is impossible to tell them apart.
In 2007, the international community decided tigers should not be bred for their parts and products. Despite these international commitments, tiger farming has increased at a rapid pace because some countries have not done enough to follow through. Consequently, operations replicating the tiger farming model have spread across South-East Asia and China, with new facilities reportedly being established.
The keeping and breeding of tigers for trade in their body parts has not alleviated pressure on wild tigers and the countries which treat tigers as a commodity are not seeing the same population recoveries documented in countries such as India, where there is a long history of protection, trade prohibition and no tiger farms.
In China, for example, the population declined from an estimated 4,000 wild tigers in 1949 to between 7-50 wild tigers surviving today. Meanwhile, the captive tiger population has grown rapidly since 2002 and is now estimated by the Chinese Government to be between 5,000 and 6,000.
By licensing domestic trade in the skins of captive tiger, China has undermined any efforts to end demand for tiger parts. EIA has been advocating for legal reform in China to end all trade, in all tiger parts and products, from all sources.