Protecting tigers

EIA’s Tiger Campaign works for the recovery of wild tiger populations by advocating the dismantling of transnational criminal networks involved in illegal trade, pressing for better legislation and the protection of their habitat and exposing the role of tiger farming in stimulating demand and thus poaching of wild tigers.

Wild tigers: a magnificent apex predator

Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) siblings resting on cool rocks, Bandhavgarh, India

Bengal Tiger resting on cool rocks, Bandhavgarh, India © Elliott Neep

Tigers are among the most powerful and magnificent wild creatures in the world. As apex predators, they are at once both breathtaking and mesmerising.

Cultures across Asia view this great cat as a deity to invoke or appease and as a protector. Tragically, these are also the reasons why so many people want to ‘consume’, display or wear tiger products.

These extraordinary animals that are so important to the ecosystems and the cultures where they live are reduced to the value of their body parts.

Demand for tiger parts and products has spiralled out of control. If we are to save this great cat and all it represents, we need a zero tolerance to trade in body parts and an end to tiger farming.

Debbie Banks, Campaign Leader for Tigers and Wildlife Crime, EIA

Tigers on the butcher’s block

There is no escaping the fact that countries from which wild tigers have been wiped out or virtually wiped out in recent years – Cambodia, China, Laos and Vietnam – are countries where the tiger has been valued solely for the sum of its body parts.

Yet no-one depends on tiger meat as a source of protein for their survival nor does anyone need their body parts for medicine, trinkets and ornamentation.

Criminals keep and breed tigers so their skins can be sold as home décor, their bones used to make non-essential tonics and medicine, their teeth and claws for jewellery and their meat served to satisfy ego.

A lethal desire for tiger products

Tragically, almost every part of a tiger has commercial value:

  • tiger skins and taxidermy specimens are used as rugs for home decoration and are often purchased as bribes;
  • tiger bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine, with wild tiger bone preferred over captive tiger bone;
  • tiger wine – made using tiger bones or even whole dead cubs – is a ‘tonic’ that is sold as a prestigious gift or as a virility product;
  • tiger teeth and claws are widely available across China and South-East Asia, often set in silver and gold, and worn as charms;
  • tiger meat is consumed as an exotic delicacy and status symbol.

Tigers on the brink of extinction

As a consequence of the growing, unchallenged demand for their body parts, Asia’s tigers continue to be threatened. They are now one of the world’s most endangered big cats.

  • < 4,000

    wild tigers in the world

  • 96%

    decline in 100 years

  • >8,000

    tigers in captivity in South-East and East Asia

About 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, representing a 96 per cent decline in the last 100 years. The wild tiger population has been wiped out in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and they are perilously close to extinction in China.

Numbers of wild tigers remaining

Tiger in a cage in a tiger farm

Tiger in a cage at a tiger farm

Tiger range country Current wild tiger population estimate
Bangladesh 106-121
Bhutan 103
Cambodia Extinct
China <50
India 2,451 - 2,967
Indonesia 371
Laos Extinct
Malaysia <200
Myanmar 22-30
Nepal 235
Russia 490
Thailand 150-200
Vietnam Extinct

Other big cats under threat

Clouded leopard

Clouded leopard

Demand for tigers is now so out of control, widespread and with diverse parts and derivatives in demand for multiple purposes, that other big cats are supplementing the trade. African lion bone, teeth and claws are entering the market and being sold as tiger; likewise jaguar teeth and claws.

This is not because tiger parts are hard to get hold of, as evidenced by the availability of tiger parts on social media, but because demand is so high and there is profit to be made from marketing any big cat bones, teeth and claws to end-consumers as tiger products.

Asia’s other big cats end up in trade for the same purposes as tigers – with leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard skins sold as cheaper alternatives for home décor, while the bones of all three species are used for ‘leopard’ bone wine and pills.

Shockingly, there are more than 24 companies in China apparently licensed to produce leopard products for legal domestic sale, despite a lack of transparency over the source or even species of bone used and in the face of massive declines in populations due to poaching across Asia.

EIA is one of the very few organisations campaigning about the threat to Asia’s leopards. Discover more about our work to save leopards and other big cats here:

Why save tigers?

The wild tiger (Panthera tigris) is an iconic creature. The largest member of the cat family, it is found from the Russian Far East to the south of India and from northern Myanmar to the forests of Sumatra.

Sadly, the tiger has seen a dramatic decline over the past 120 years. Already three subspecies of tiger have become extinct and the remaining populations are under intense pressure from further habitat loss, poaching and conflict with local human populations.

Classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN, the species attracts a great deal of attention and numerous efforts are under way to enable the stabilisation and recovery of the tiger.

Where wild tiger populations are stabilising and in some areas recovering –  it is in countries where, despite enormous pressures on land, ancient connection between people and tigers persists. Tigers would not exist in south Asia today were it not for the tolerance of rural communities, many of whom still revere the tiger. There is much we should learn from indigenous communities to help us re-evaluate our relationship with wildlife.

Debbie Banks, Campaign Leader for Tigers and Wildlife Crime, EIA

However, the tiger is not just one of the world’s most revered animals, it also plays a crucial role in protecting the biodiversity and habitats of Asia and is an important barometer of good governance and our ability to deal with a whole range of environmental problems.

Tigers play a crucial role in supporting other species and ecosystems. As a charismatic animal, the tiger provides an umbrella under which a host of other species can be protected. In order for the tiger to survive, it needs healthy, well-protected forests and prey species. These in turn support the whole ecology of the region.

Meanwhile, the forests, swamps and mangroves provide essential ecosystem services such as water purification and retention, soil creation, flood prevention, climate regulation, forest products and climate change mitigation.

Tigers provide a visible symbol of the health of the forests, while in many areas they also provide the incentive to protect the forests. Numerous programmes have been developed to conserve tiger populations with varying degrees of investment, ranging from habitat protection, community relations, anti-poaching and anti-trafficking; to demand side solutions such as education and awareness to reduce demand for parts and derivatives, and anti-corruption measures to discourage trafficking.

By protecting tigers, we are also protecting forests, other species and the surrounding ecosystem.

The impact of tigers on forest communities and ecotourism

The poaching of tigers has a direct impact on the poor and vulnerable forest communities dependent on forest ecosystems.

With ecotourism the fastest growing subsector of tourism in developing countries, poaching of tigers also risks loss of livelihood. A Government study estimates that just six of India’s high profile tiger reserves generate $852m a year in ecosystem services. One particular tiger reserve, in one year, is estimated to have generated $103m for the local and national economy from tiger tourism.

Protecting tigers therefore creates jobs linked to tourism and helps create alternative livelihoods by making local people custodians of wildlife.

Disrupting the transnational criminal networks involved in the illegal tiger trade

Since July 1975, tigers have been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), with the exception of the Siberian sub-species added in 1987. CITES is a multilateral treaty which governments sign up to voluntarily. It aims to ensure that the trade in wildlife does not threaten their survival.

As a result of this CITES agreement, international commercial trade in tigers is prohibited. However, the illegal wildlife market in tiger products continues to flourish and there are still domestic markets for tiger, which stimulate demand.

Exposing the criminals behind tiger trafficking and poaching

EIA’s undercover investigators work consistently to disrupt the shadowy figures behind the illegal tiger trade. Their work is high-risk and dangerous and requires extensive support from us in order to expose the criminals who are relentlessly driving the tiger towards extinction.

Time and time again, our investigative approach to protecting tigers has been proven to work.

We gather, analyse and disseminate information in order to disrupt the activity of criminal networks uncovered by EIA investigators. By sharing information on ‘persons of interest’ with law enforcement officials, the private sector and financial authorities, including information on methods and routes of trafficking, points of sale and digital retail, we can facilitate disruption of the networks.

Recently, in partnership with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, EIA investigators have documented the role of Chinese criminal networks in Nepal smuggling parts from poached wild tigers from India and Nepal to China. One key player has been convicted and others are still subject to official investigations.

Joining forces in the fight to protect tigers

We also work with like-minded organisations who are dedicated to protecting tigers to disrupt criminal networks.

Under a project funded by the UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, we and our partners Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) are investigating the links between tiger farms and the tiger trade in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The project includes mapping the transnational criminal networks that are trafficking tiger parts across the region and putting together a picture of where tigers are held in captivity and how they end up in trade.

We have published an interactive map of tiger farms and other facilities such as zoos in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, highlighting those that have been implicated in trade.

With this information, EIA, ENV and WFFT are advocating more effective responses to tiger farming and trade in the region, including sharing information with enforcement agencies to facilitate enforcement action. Together we have raised the profile of tiger farming across the region and will continue to advocate for the reform of laws and policies to phase out tiger farming and trade.

Disrupting a $23 billion a year business

The international illegal wildlife trade is estimated to generate up to $23 billion in illicit revenue per year, making it the fourth most lucrative form of transnational organised crime after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative form of organised crime.

Yet, despite the growing awareness of the scale of the crime, wildlife crime remains largely a low-risk and high-profit activity for trafficking syndicates. For example, there are only a handful of instances where financial investigations and anti-money laundering laws have been used to target the upper echelons of the criminal groups involved. And seizing commodities is commonly viewed as the end of a case – the successful conclusion of an investigation.

Our ‘follow the money’ approach

Transactions associated with the illegal tiger trade are made in cash, via the formal banking system and via WeChat pay.  In order to truly combat wildlife crime EIA advocates for a ‘follow the money’ approach to disrupt criminal networks.

The UK Government launched a joint initiative in October 2018 between DfID and FCO, the International Wildlife Financial Taskforce, bringing together more than 30 financial institutions to target illicit financial flows associated with wildlife crime.

Anti-money laundering and law enforcement agencies have little experience of dealing with offences such as wildlife crime, so one important aspect of EIA’s work in protecting tigers is to bring our wildlife expertise to the financial sector through the sharing of case studies, analysis of trends in illicit financial flows in wildlife trafficking and information that can help them take action.

Exposing the role of tiger farming in stimulating demand for tigers and the poaching of wild tigers

For many years, EIA has been at the forefront of international campaigning against the commercial tiger ‘farms’ and ‘zoos’ that proliferate across China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tiger farms: cultivating demand for tigers

The huge number of tigers held or bred in captivity in China suggests there will be a major explosion in trade – and this can only lead to more tigers being poached in the wild.

Debbie Banks, Campaign Leader for Tigers and Wildlife Crime, EIA

Tiger ‘farms’ and ‘zoos’ serve no conservation purpose and keep tigers in cruel and unnatural conditions. What’s more, the legal and illegal supply of parts from captive tigers from tiger farms perpetuates the demand for tiger skins, teeth, bones, claws and meat.

EIA reports reveal deadly effects of tiger farms

EIA investigators are engaged in an ongoing battle to uncover the trafficking networks and modus operandi involved in leaking tiger parts from places which masquerade as farms or zoos.

A series of EIA reports have detailed the cruel and illegal practices that threaten the survival of Asia’s tigers in these facilities;

  • our 2013 report, Hidden in Plain Sight about China’s clandestine tiger trade, revealed how Government departments had quietly encouraged the growth of tiger farms to supply an expanding legal domestic trade in tiger skins. This action encouraged poaching of wild tigers and undermined the international ban on tiger trade agreed by the majority of the world through the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES);
  • in our joint report of 2014, Caged Assets: Tiger Farming and Trade, we highlighted that captive tiger facilities were leaking tiger parts and live animals into illegal international and domestic trade. The report also stated that organised criminal networks were using captive tiger facilities to launder illegally acquired specimens, with corruption impeding meaningful prosecutions;
  • our groundbreaking report Sin City in 2015 exposed the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) and the role of Laos in providing a safe haven for wildlife criminals to operate. Our report stirred up the international community and contributed to the US Government’s assessment of the controlling company at the GTSEZ as an organised crime group;
  • Cultivating Demand: The Growing Threat of Tiger Farms, published in 2017, demonstrated how countries such as China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have drastically expanded their tiger farming operations, flagrantly disregarding a 2007 CITES agreement between world governments. Our report investigated how tiger farms in these countries were playing a key role in fuelling trade in captive tiger parts and products.

The huge rise in South Asia’s tiger farms

China opened its first commercial tiger farm in 1986. The practice rapidly spread to neighbouring countries and there are now more than 8,000 captive tigers in China, Laos, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

Captive tigers in China

Tiger farm facilities range from small backyard holdings to circuses, from collections masquerading as zoos to battery farming-style operations holding more than a thousand tigers.

  • 21

    Captive tigers in 1987

  • 5,000

    Captive tigers in 2018

The cruel trade in captive-bred tiger cubs

Dead tiger cubs offered for sale on WeChat by Vietnamese traders and, right, the end product, tiger cub wine

Dead tiger cubs offered for sale on WeChat by Vietnamese traders and, right, the end product, tiger cub wine

On these farms, tigers live out their lives in cages – a tiny space for an animal whose territory in the wild might cover a hundred square kilometres. Sadly, because of these cruel, unnatural conditions, poor diet and inbreeding, there is often a high infant mortality rates and many cubs perish.

Shockingly, traders still find a way to use dead cubs for profit, even those that were only a few days old, in the illegal manufacture of ‘tiger cub wine’. Dead cubs are frozen by traders to preserve them until they reach their final destination. Our investigators have witnessed the carcasses of tiger cubs soaked in wine vats with other ingredients such as snakes, scorpions and bears paws, to be sold as a traditional ‘remedy’.

Some of the cubs that survive will stay at the facilities where they were born. But surplus live cubs pass into the cub trade. EIA investigators have been working with local partners to trace the routes used by wildlife traders to smuggle live tiger cubs between China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Our work is helping to gather evidence that we can pass on to law enforcement agencies, helping to disrupt the criminal networks behind this deadly trade.

China’s tiger farms fuel the tiger trade

China’s massive tiger farming industry, with an estimated 5,000-6,000 tigers in captivity, is a source for tiger parts and products entering trade. Contrary to the assertions of pro-tiger farming advocates, tiger breeding facilities have increased pressure on wild tigers, not reduced it.

Sadly, consumers continue to prefer wild tiger products, which means it is profitable for criminal networks to continue poaching and trafficking. As a result, criminal networks expand as far as India, Myanmar, Malaysia and Nepal to supply wild tiger body parts for consumers demanding the ‘authentic article’.

There are a further 2,000+ tigers in captivity in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, including in facilities that have been implicated in transnational wildlife trafficking and are affiliated to Chinese and Vietnamese criminal networks.

Battling rampant and growing demand in China

The Chinese Government is doing little to stem the rampant demand for tiger parts that drives its tiger ‘farming’ industry and threatens the very existence of wild tigers. This inaction makes it clear that protecting tigers is far from a priority for China.

The sale of tiger skins is effectively legal and the official ban on the use of tiger bone in traditional medicines and remedies – already undermined by widespread illegal trade – was repealed altogether in 2018. Without a new ban or a change in the law, the tiger is not safe in China.

EIA continues to expose the ugly truth behind China’s tiger farm industry and consistently lobbies the Chinese Government to phase out tiger farms altogether.

Raising awareness of the dangers of tourist attractions in Thailand

Thailand is known for tourist attractions where visitors can pose for ‘tiger selfies’ or bottlefeed tiger cubs, unaware that many of these facilities are secretly selling dead cubs, and parts from dead tigers, onto the black market.

Recent field work by our partner, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, suggests the number of tiger farms in Thailand is bigger than we’d thought – and growing. These farms supply live and dead cubs which are smuggled to other facilities in Thailand and across the border via Laos into Vietnam.

As part of our work in protecting tigers, to raise awareness of the detrimental effect on tigers of so-called farms and zoos, we encourage people not to pose for pictures with tigers.

Tracking illegal trade by the back door in Laos

The Government of Laos made a commitment to phase out tiger farms in 2016, which we welcomed at the time. But since then, these farms have been allowed to convert into tourist attractions instead of closing.

We warned the international community that the farms are run by criminal enterprises and would likely continue their illegal trade by the back door. In July 2019, we were sadly proved right when seven dead tiger cubs from one of the Laos farms were seized by law-enforcement officials in Vietnam.

Our work protecting tigers in Laos includes documenting ongoing illegal trade in tigers and tiger products and reporting our findings to law enforcement agencies.

Uncovering the basements where tigers are slaughtered to order in Vietnam

Vietnam has tiger farms and also, more critically, a massive problem with cruel and illegal backyard breeding of tigers for trade. Apparently ordinary rural households rear a tiger cub in a cage in their back yard or basement, feeding it up until it’s big enough to be sold for its parts.

Many have regular buyers from whom they take orders on a messaging app, smuggle the parts to the border and then courier on to the end destination. New buyers sometimes come in person to choose their tiger, watch it being slaughtered and butchered. They buy whatever tiger parts they want or wait until its bones are boiled down into ‘tiger bone glue’.

According to the traders we have engaged with undercover, there may be hundreds of these ‘backyard breeders’, but so far little law enforcement action has been taken against them.

With our partner, Education for Nature Vietnam, we continue to monitor and track the growing problem of Vietnam’s backyard tiger breeding, as well as calling on the Vietnamese Government to phase out tiger farms and prosecute individuals and businesses that are implicated in the tiger trade.

Campaigning for better legislation and the protection of big cats, including tigers and leopards

EIA has determinedly and steadfastly campaigned for better legislation and for the protection of big cats, in national and global arenas, wherever possible drawing on the combined strength of like-minded partners and organisations.

Closing domestic markets for big cats is a must. Our report on the leopard bone trade is a call to action for China to amend legislation to unambiguously prohibit the use of leopard, tiger, pangolin, bear, rhino and other threatened species in traditional Chinese medicine. It is also a call to action for investors the world over to ensure they are not financing the pharmaceutical companies making leopard bone pills and wine.

We continue to put pressure on the governments of the countries that are driving tigers towards extinction, both by lobbying governments directly and by presenting the results of our investigations at international wildlife conferences.

Campaigning to protect tigers at CITES

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, aims to ensure that the trade in wildlife does not threaten their survival.

EIA regularly attends CITES conferences, which are held every two to three years, and the annual meetings of the Standing Committee body that monitors implementation and compliance, to lobby and campaign to help save tigers from extinction.

In 2007, EIA was a member of the International Tiger Coalition, a group of more than 40 NGOs which were instrumental in persuading world governments at CITES to adopt a decision to agree to phase out tiger farms. However, since that time, countries such as China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have drastically expanded their tiger farming operations.

In response, EIA has kept up the pressure by gathering evidence and presenting it to the government representatives at the conference and to the standing committee.

Our reports for CITES related to protecting tigers include:

  • Stop Stimulating Demand, 2013 – our report argues that wildlife trade bans work, if they are not sabotaged;
  • Asian Big Cats briefing, 2016 – presenting evidence of threats to tigers and other big cats, together with recommendations of how Parties that have signed up to CITES can help protect these endangered species;
  • Tiger Trade in Laos, 2019 – a call for CITES Parties to suspend trade with Laos due to the increase in tiger farms in the country.

Debbie Banks, EIA’s Campaign Leader for Tigers and Wildlife Crime, is a familiar figure at CITES conferences. In the BBC2 documentary shown in March 2020, Tigers: Hunting the Traffickers, the programme showed Debbie advocating for CITES trade suspensions on Laos on behalf of EIA and others at the CITES 2019 conference in Geneva.

What CITES Parties must do to save tigers

When you have countries like Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China that are continuing to allow the trade in parts and products of farmed and captive-bred tigers, the rest of the CITES Parties need to take urgent action and put pressure on them. Threaten them with trade sanctions, because the tiger does not have time for more slow, agonising debate.

Debbie Banks, EIA’s Head of Tiger and Wildlife Crime team

Putting pressure on governments to protect wild tigers

At EIA, we continue to urge governments to close tiger farms and push for law enforcement.

We are petitioning governments in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to show they’re committed to protecting tigers by:

  • stopping captive breeding;
  • enforcing existing laws prohibiting illicit wildlife trade;
  • supporting consumer behaviour change campaigns aimed at Chinese consumers in China and neighbouring countries.

Governments’ role in protecting tigers

Governments around the world can help save wild tigers by having an unambiguous ban on consumption of any tiger parts, even from tigers in captivity; making sure that any breeding is scientifically managed for the conservation of the species; and by calling on other countries to implement these kind of policies.

Aron White, Wildlife Campaigner  and China Specialist

Demanding action from the Chinese Government

As the world’s largest destination for tiger parts and derivatives, and the world’s largest tiger farming country, China has failed to end the demand and the commercial industry that are fuelling tiger poaching. The transnational nature of this market illustrates the need to raise awareness and advocate for a range of actions to be taken by China at the domestic and regional level to address their role in the escalation and proliferation of the trade.

EIA takes every opportunity to challenge the Chinese Government to recognise its responsibility to protect tigers.

With the spotlight on China as host of the forthcoming 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Government of China has a chance to bring about transformative change.

We are asking the Chinese Government to send a message that a sustainable future for humanity does not include the exploitation of wildlife and endangered species.

Our work saving tigers from extinction

Our campaign to save tigers began in the mid-1990s with an initial focus on protecting the species in its heartland of India. Subsequently, we sought to end the tiger trade in key countries and regions, such as China and the Mekong.

Here are some of the key developments over the years during our battle to save tigers.

Protecting tigers: the ongoing fight

1993 China bans the use of tiger bone and rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine.
1994 At the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference, world governments agree to ban domestic trade in tiger parts.
2004-2005 China allows production of tiger bone wine.
2005 Appealing against the use of tiger, leopard and otter skins in Tibetan traditional costumes
2005 China allows trade in tiger bone wine from tiger farms.
2007 The International Tiger Coalition is instrumental in persuading world governments at CITES to agree to phase out tiger farms.
2016 China revises its Wildlife Protection law, opening up loopholes that allow trade in protected species for traditional Chinese medicine.
2018 China issues a permit for the use of leopard bone in traditional Chinese medicine.
2018 The World Health Organisation endorses traditional Chinese medicine.
2018 China repeals its 1993 ban on tiger bone and rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine, allowing farmed tiger bone and rhino horn in eligible hospitals.
2020 Following the coronavirus outbreak, China issues a temporary ban on wildlife trade.

Campaigning to halt the destruction of tiger habitat

Illegal trade, poaching and captive breeding are not the only threats to the future of tigers in the wild. The habitats so essential to their survival are under frequent assault from human activities, whether it be new infrastructure such as railways and roads or commercial exploitation such as mining and deforestation. Our efforts have already resulted in several successful interventions to protect habitat. By protecting tigers’ habitats, we are protecting tigers.

Tiger and three tiger cubs in a forest

Tiger and three tiger cubs in a forest

How you can help save tigers from extinction

There is hope for the tiger. If the world wants to save wild tigers, we must learn lessons from countries such as India and Nepal, where tiger populations are surviving, breeding and showing signs of recovery, where there are strong laws against possession, trade and use, and where tigers are valued more alive and in the wild. There is knowledge, experience and good practice that can be learned from communities, NGOs, academics and officials. There are challenges across South Asia too, no doubt, but with a culture and philosophy of protection as the foundation, there is hope.

Please donate today to help support our vital work to save tigers by disrupting criminal networks, exposing the deadly role of tiger farms and campaigning for legislation that protects big cats.

Your gift will make a valuable difference in protecting tigers and other endangered species and supporting our ongoing fight to investigate, expose and stop wildlife and environmental crimes around the world.

Please support our work to protect tigers and other endangered wildlife. We need your help – before it’s too late.