The Year of the Tiger - and Organized Crime

The "Year of the Tiger," the lunar Chinese New Year, was celebrated on February 14. Once every twelve years, tigers are honored for their transcendent beauty and for the physical and psychic prowess their parts are believed to offer humans.

There are perhaps 17,000 tigers on this earth. Between 5,000 and 7,000 are "farmed in China," five thousand in the United States, three thousand of which are kept in private hands, about two thousand in zoos. These are not solid numbers, but what we do know is that there are probably no more than 3,200 tigers in the wild. And we do know that wild tigers are being snared and poached and killed at a rate that will once and for all time bring silence and death to the wild. Thus, this Year of the Tiger has brought an orchestra of well-wishers to the fore: to hold conferences, to issue papers, to pledge to double wild tiger numbers by the next Year of the Tiger. But conferences will not suffice to shut down the vicious criminal organizations, serious killers, who run an operation that is as lucrative as the trade in illegal drugs. A 55 pound sack of tiger bones from a single tiger, a tiger once wild and now caged in a tenement zoo enclosure, can be worth up to $250,000. Consider the selling price of all the parts of a failing, ill-treated, once-wild tiger, now near death with other once-wild, dying tigers.

T.J. a Siberian tiger who Liz and I met in 1992, in of all places, Zoo Montana in Billings, courtesy of Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Director of the Science and Conservation Center, was not among those who ever knew wildness. To that extent he was not a tiger at all. I will write more about the splendid creature, Timothy J., named after a keeper in Denver, a tiny cub whose mother died shortly after his birth. He was three years old at the time we met him, a supreme failure as a wild tiger, but a masterpiece of creature beauty.

Tiger numbers are difficult to state with precision. What is not difficult to state is that there is a well-organized criminal trade in tigers, tiger parts and tiger prey, mainly headed for China. And as China enjoys greater affluence, the internal market place for wild tiger products, grows stronger and more demanding. Tiger bone wine, ground tiger bone powder mixed with 38% proof rice wine is sold for prices as high as $750 per bottle depending on the vintage.

TRAFFIC, a group financed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) serves as the ubiquitous watchdog and reporter of the illegal trade in tigers and tiger parts, as well as tiger prey.

Here is a recent wake-up report from TRAFFIC.

"The tiger is in crisis. Its value has exponentially increased as a result of the growing affluence of a significant population of Asians, particularly the Chinese. The removal of a top predator from any ecosystem is the equivalent of removing an essential structural component from an airplane. The system will crash.

"The reason for the continuing demise of the wild tiger is overwhelmingly the demand for bones, skin, meat and virtually every part that comprises a tiger. Claws and teeth are used for jewelry and good luck charms. Eyeballs are used to treat epilepsy, bile to stop convulsions, whiskers to soothe toothache and penises as a potent sexual tonic. It is this exploding demand in China that has led to the diversification of organized crime gangs running tiger trafficking operations. The most readily available and cheapest part of the killing gang: willing poachers in all parts of the tiger's range. When the takings get too slim, operations move to wherever enforcement is weakest and corruption highest.

"These are tough people, not hesitating to kill when pushed hard.

"India, Nepal, Sumatra, Malaysia, Vietnam are all poaching centers of the trade. There is a new trend for cutting tigers into portable sized pieces, skin first removed. More saleable components can be shipped via truck using this method. Even some zoos have had break-ins (China and Indonesia) where the tigers in the cage are killed and butchered on the spot and the body parts carried out overnight in backpacks.

"Poaching is not about poor farmers scratching out a living, or retaliating against a tiger that has invaded a village garden - this is big business. It is arrogant business; in the face of multi-party workshops and multi-player pledges to work to save the wild tiger, we have received a recent film made in Malaysia, portraying a number of poachers who snared a tiger. We watch as they spear it, shoot it, and grin back at the camera. Here is the first link that connects by cell phone or satellite phone to the syndicated group that swiftly moves the dead tiger from the source to the consumer.

"We conclude that the tiger does not have a chance unless we can catalyze high level government will, build in governance and transparency systems and raise the capacity for enforcement. That combined with demand reduction programs and working to close the tiger farms is what the workshops that have been and are to be is pledged, not necessarily to do, but to talk about. We also emphasize that the encouragement of young local NGO's such Asean Wen (Asean Wildlife Network) of Thailand is crucial to the long-term viability of wild tigers."

So, what is the planned strategy of the world's key policy-makers now that the saving of wild tigers is fast becoming a global responsibility? In April of 2009 an international technical workshop was convened in Thailand: the Pattaya Manifesto on Combating Wildlife Crime in Asia. It issued fifteen recommendations focusing on initiatives for the prevention of poaching, reduction in demand for illegal wildlife, as well as increasing public awareness.

Next followed the much ballyhooed workshop in Kathmandu (Nepal) convened October 30 of last year. More than 250 "experts," scientists and government delegates from thirteen tiger- range countries attended and called for "immediate action to save tigers before the species disappears from the wild." They cited the urgent need to for increased protection against tiger poaching and trafficking in tiger parts. The usual luminaries co-organized and co-sponsored the event: the most prestigious, the World Bank.

One workshop seems to always beget another, in this case a conference held in Thailand, October 27 through October 30. This was Asia's first ministerial meeting on tiger conservation. In attendance were ministers and vice ministers representing the thirteen tiger-range countries.

This workshop added the element of site specific work, already in progress, to save tiger habitat and effect outreach work with the local population. Wildlife Conservation Society, financed to some extent by our foundation, is working in western Thailand to beef up local patrols, keep development at arm's length from tiger habitat, and do the monitoring necessary to evaluate the program's activities. All in all, the results are positive. But the work, valuable as it is, will not do the long-term job that is required. Unless the criminal trade is shut down, the attendees agreed, the wild tiger will be gone by the next Year of the Tiger.

The Prime Minister delivered a video address to the group. "This may be our last chance to save the tiger," he said as he urged the group to set a clear and forceful agenda.

An important statement emerged. The attendees affirmed that they had appeared together with a common purpose: to make clear commitments to saving the endangered tiger. They agreed, in a joint declaration to protect "critical tiger habitats and existing tiger source populations as true sanctuaries for tigers and be inviolate from economic development." They laid out an agenda for the September Summit meeting in Vladivostok that covered all bases, including the enforcement of laws that would eventually put an end to the criminal poaching of tigers and tiger prey, and the shutting down of all tiger farms, an issue of major importance to the World Bank.

So, next to Vladivostok in September: a Heads of State Summit, hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and co-chaired by the World Bank's Robert Zoellick.

"Summits" as we know, come and go, and then the players go back to the rhythms of their daily lives. Once again, it will not be heads of state that will save the wild tiger. It will be us, you and me and people who care enough to engage.