• July 2, 2014

Speaking For Tigers: A Call to End Asia’s Illegal Trade

Sharon Guynup
Steve Winter

Our driver turned off one of Nagpur’s main thoroughfares, leaving the honking chaos of urban Indian traffic behind us. We pulled into the bucolic tropical campus that housed Forest Department offices. At the gate we were stopped and questioned by guards who meticulously checked our credentials and called their superiors before finally waving us inside. Security was high: The confiscated tiger skins that Steve Winter and I had come to film and photograph for National Geographic were worth a small fortune on the black market—and forest officials had been gunned down in heists of tiger contraband before.

When we arrived, guards were laying out the pelts for us, carrying them with great tenderness and a solemnity that made me feel like I was attending a funeral. Some of the skins had been processed into rugs, with heads still attached, gazing at us with marble eyes. Others were desiccated, with shrunken heads.

That footage became part of a video on India’s illegal tiger trade and a blog post on why tigers are “walking gold.”

It was the kind of assignment that both breaks your heart and drives you to continue.

Forest department guards display confiscated tiger skins at local headquarters in Nagpur, in central India. With rising demand for both skins and bones in China, India's Bengal tigers have been increasingly in the crosshairs--part of the illegal transnational  wildlife trade valued at $19 billion dollar a year.
Forest department guards display confiscated tiger skins at local headquarters in Nagpur, in central India. With rising demand for both skins and bones in China, India’s Bengal tigers have been increasingly in the crosshairs–part of the illegal transnational wildlife trade valued at $19 billion dollar a year.

Those skins (along with most poached tigers) may have been headed for China, where they are used as luxury décor. Tiger bones are also coveted, used to make “bone strengthening wine,” an expensive tonic brewed by soaking a tiger skeleton in rice wine.

Poaching is spiking in tandem with a rising demand in China for these high-end tiger products that are purchased by—or “gifted” to—China’s elite, a group that reportedly includes government officials and wealthy businessmen. It’s a trade that’s strictly about money and status, which I detailed in a June 29 OpEd in the New York Times.

This skin and bone market is fueled both by wild tigers and by about 200 commercial breeding facilities—that house at least 5,000 tigers. Many of those cats live miserable caged lives under deplorable conditions. In no way do these ‘farms’ protect the wild tiger from extinction; rather they increase the availability of tiger parts, driving up demand. Nor can these farm-bred cats be used to restock wild populations. A captive tiger has never been successfully released into the wild.

These men were apprehended in January 2011 while trying to sell a tiger skin near Chandrapur, India. The illegal trade in tiger bone and skins is run by international crime syndicates that also traffic drugs and guns; the transnational wildlife trade is a $19 million dollar a year business. Tiger parts are flowing almost exclusively to China.
These men were apprehended in January 2011 while trying to sell a tiger skin near Chandrapur, India. The illegal trade in tiger bone and skins is run by international crime syndicates that also traffic drugs and guns; the transnational wildlife trade is a $19 million dollar a year business. Tiger parts are flowing almost exclusively to China.

Has China quietly legalized domestic sale of tiger products? Or are officials involved in—or turning a blind eye to—the trade? Either way, this lucrative black market could not function without the involvement of government officials. That should raise a red flag for President Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign.

China’s role in the growing tiger crisis will be part of the discussion when the Standing Committee of the 2014 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (which regulates wildlife trade under a treaty signed by 180 nations) meets in Geneva the week of July 7. This meeting offers China an opportunity to gain global respect by doing the right thing: Closing down its tiger farms, ending all commerce in tigers and committing to international conservation and enforcement initiatives.

Tourists feed tigers at a private zoo in Guilin, China.  Owners of such animals are pushing to legalize sales of captive-tiger products. Conservationists fear that any form of legal tiger trade would further endanger the few cats that still roam free.
Tourists feed tigers at a private zoo in Guilin, China in this photograph by Mark Leong for a 2010 National Geographic story on Asia’s wildlife trade. Owners of such animals are pushing to legalize sales of captive-tiger products. Conservationists fear that any form of legal tiger trade would further endanger the few cats that still roam free.
Photograph by Mark Leong

Wildlife poaching and illegal trade in endangered species are issues that both Steve and I have reported on for some time. I first wrote on the topic back in 2000. Steve had encountered poaching on a number of stories he shot in Latin America and Asia. But he got a hard look at this world in 2003, when he went to Myanmar for National Geographic magazine to cover the creation of the world’s largest tiger reserve in the Hukawng Valley—one of the country’s last viable habitats for Indochinese tigers.

The government had just reopened the WWII Burma Road. With access to the valley, small-scale gold panning had mushroomed into an all-out gold rush and 150,000 people streamed in.

Steve never even glimpsed a tiger and his coverage focused on the threats that are wiping tigers off the planet. Miners leveled the jungle, leaving a cratered, denuded landscape. With no supermarkets in the jungle, thousands of people hunted for their dinner, emptying the forest of the food that tigers eat. Poachers swarmed in, killing cats and other wildlife for the illegal transnational wildlife trade.

On his next assignment, in Kaziranga National Park, Steve encountered the extreme opposite. This small reserve in northeast India is home to possibly the highest concentration of tigers anywhere. I flew over to join him, working on a tiger story, and it was there that we each glimpsed our first wild tiger. Its enormous size, rippling muscles, and flaming auburn beauty almost took my breath away.

Hunted to death in much of India, tigers survive in Kaziranga.
Hunted to death in much of India, tigers survive in Kaziranga.

Kaziranga is also home to most of the world’s remaining Indian rhinos—which makes it poaching ground zero. The park is protected by 300-plus armed guards that have government permission to shoot poachers on sight—which is why tigers are thriving there.

But Kaziranga is an exception. Most people don’t realize that wild tigers are almost gone. A century ago, about 100,000 tigers roamed across Asia, from Turkey east to Siberia and south through Indochina to Sumatra. Last year, when Steve and I produced our book, Tigers Forever, experts told me that perhaps 3,200 wild tigers still survive. Since then, they say that their numbers may have dropped to 3,000—split among five subspecies, scattered in small pockets across 13 countries, living amidst Asia’s exploding human population. Despite millions of dollars spent on conservation over decades, India is the last real stronghold, with about 1,800 Bengal tigers.

With tigers disappearing before his eyes, Steve continued trying to capture images of these magnificent cat, hoping to reinvigorate global concern. He produced a wider tiger story, “Cry for the Tiger,” shot in Thailand, Sumatra and, of course, India.

We continue to speak for tigers. One thing we’ve learned is that this wide-ranging predator flourishes with just the basics: food, water, and a forest home. When you add armed front-line protection, strong laws, enforcement, and careful monitoring, they bounce back. And the world must persuade China to end the demand for tiger products.

Where there’s life, there’s hope. But unless we act now, tigers—the heart and soul of Asia’s jungles—could be extinct in the wild in our lifetimes.

Sharon Guynup is a journalist who blogs on tigers for National Geographic’s Cat Watch and is co-author, with photographer Steve Winter, of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, produced in partnership with Panthera. To learn more about how you can cause an uproar to help endangered big cats, visit National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.

There are 54 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Alex Den
    May 3, 2016

    Stop the damn killing! It may be my home country, but I may not be coming back until this stops! Stop killing and Start loving!

  2. jasper
    February 24, 2016

    It is mean.And the Asians are dumb because if you keep killing them the business will shut down because the tigers are gone

  3. Alexia Ferranti
    September 25, 2014

    I pray humans will evolve in time for these amazing animals to flourish again!

  4. kiran Nandan
    July 31, 2014

    shoot down the cruel poachers that kill this beautiful creatures or kill this bloody butchers by throwing them to our tiger hero’s…let them stuff these barbarians…i feel ashamed why this government sit hand cuffed and shutting their mouth ….please help these speechless tigers to survive in this world…do remember we the human beings can only save them …please implement the Kazhiranga plan in all tiger reserves …that this poacher bitchers are to be shoot at sight…love u tigers..vande mathram,,

  5. Michael Rayner
    July 27, 2014

    An eye for an eye, no exception.

  6. Ricardo
    July 15, 2014

    A todos loa animalitos, grandes o chiquitos debemos protejerlos, hay que detener a los anormales que hacen negocio de ellos.

  7. Muguwa Joseph
    July 14, 2014

    Only a multi-pronged approach will save those poor animals; and not only the tigers!!!. Sensitisationand awareness programmes amongst communities, robust ad sustainable inti-poachning programmes by the different governmenst in areas of origins, collaborative/and or concerted efforts by organisations like the IUCN and others, willingness by govts. having the ultimate markets, research and others. Above all responsible respect for nature

  8. jaafar
    July 14, 2014

    sincerely from my deep heart…sadness and pity to see animals killed by humans for their own. angry and frustrated to seeing people cruel and selfish. REMEMBER…before mankind, they are the original inhabitants in this earth kingdoom. PLEASED…let them live in peace.

  9. imaculada figueiredo
    July 12, 2014

    This country should be poor and wretched.
    Greed is a low act.
    No animal deserves a barbarity is this, please leave in peace
    I do not buy a jacket, a wallet, a stole or a rug in my house, I am AGAINST.

  10. Faris
    July 10, 2014

    How come we are the smartest creatures on this planet, and we are destroying it.

  11. Kathy Smith
    July 9, 2014

    I just can’t believe that something can’t be done to stop the sale. Why can’t China and any other country that uses endangered species be punished?

  12. silvia
    July 9, 2014

    Stop killing and start loving this wonderful creation…

  13. save tigers
    July 4, 2014

    gods animals should be minded not killed off

  14. Sue Boswell
    July 4, 2014

    Thank you Steve and Sharon for the work that you have put your heart and soul into to make the world aware of this tragic and unspeakable slaughter of one God’s most magnificent creatures. I truly believe that one day we humans will all find out that “we” are the underlings…. What other species on earth causes more harm than good??

  15. David Barber
    July 3, 2014

    China must stop this horrendous trade in wild animals, it is barbaric to treat beautiful creatures in this way,

  16. Magnumopus
    July 3, 2014

    Barbarian rituals, indeed.

  17. jan jackson
    July 3, 2014

    Stand up and be counted China, it’s time to stop this barbaric cruelty, leave these magnificent creatures alone before it’s too late.

  18. Jelle
    July 3, 2014

    Humans and their paper money… . An infinite economy in a world with finite resources.

  19. mr mcgill
    July 3, 2014


  20. Shankbones
    July 3, 2014

    In response to tikku, I would like to say that poachers in India are hunting tigers as a means to put food on the table for their families. Quite frankly, I think these people should get minimal punishment-their needs are honest. The people that should be punished are the smugglers and bigshot CEO’s in China for encouraging such a lowly trade.

  21. Rand Peabody
    July 3, 2014

    Only serious governmental action can hope to stop this, and right now that sort of action needs particularly to come from China. So let’s hope the Chinese step up to this one in an effective way. ‘The whole world’s watching’!

  22. Elaine Christie
    July 3, 2014

    These animals face a long and lingering death, CHINA HAS TO CHANGE ITS ATTITUDE, and all caught poaching should be shot!

  23. sushan kc
    July 3, 2014

    I want to help in the conservation of these mighty animal…………….
    Actually human beings are the beast because we kill for enjoyment
    Whereas tiger kills to survive

  24. Gwen Jones
    July 3, 2014

    Once these magnificent creatures are gone, they’re gone for good like the Dodo. Leave them alone to live in their natural environment as God intended.

  25. veena
    July 3, 2014

    China needs to be pressurized, as well their citizens need to stand against the sick laws of government.. Awareness is there can’t guess why they don’t stop it. They are sick!

  26. Kirsty
    July 3, 2014

    It needs to stop know these beautiful animals were put on earth for a reason NOT to be killed by sick bastards . I think the tigers ought to be let loose on them and see how they like it.

  27. M. Louise Durst
    July 3, 2014

    Stop these irresponsible actions.

  28. Mary Catherine
    July 3, 2014

    When reading articles like this, I find myself ashamed and embarrassed to be a part of the human race.

  29. tikku
    July 3, 2014

    Many nations are working hard to protect this beautiful animal, much needed for ecological balance. India is the worst and we destroy them for bits of money. I do not much feel great of our greedy countrymen and I do not feel proud of it. Will try spreading this article, may be someone who has a say, care to listen.

  30. Shohad Ali
    July 3, 2014

    We want justice from Indian Government …….

  31. Janette
    July 3, 2014

    This is the 21st Century…Respect Animals…they deserve to live in this world as humans do!

  32. John E. T. Amokaha
    July 3, 2014

    So so sad but not because of the loss of the God-given beauty of the tiger,rather the progressive general insensitivity of man with all his “advancements” as in the armed conflicts around the world,terrorism,drug dealing, nuclear arms stocking & other weapons of mass destruction which threaten with extinction the human race itself.

  33. Anne Graham
    July 3, 2014

    This is heartbreaking. Tigers are beautiful animals and once again humans have to destroy what’s beautiful in nature. And the one in the cage – it’s not enough to take away his freedom, they have to take away his dignity by hand-feeding him? Shameful!

  34. JD Roberts
    July 3, 2014

    Truly CRIMINAL to NOT do anything about it! I do everything within my power to help…Including ‘stalking’ ebay and ALERTING CITES in several countries whenever I come across the illegal, non-Victorian Tiger parts that are sold as ‘Antique’ when they are not!

  35. kyawsoewin
    July 2, 2014

    I like animals

  36. Marlene Hillock
    July 2, 2014

    I find that the tiger is one of the most majestic animal on the face of this earth. With evolution we should be past the point of killing for our own material possessions. We all need to protect these species or our children’s children won’t have the opportunity to see these rare and beautiful animals. We need to start protecting and stop the killing. The whole world needs to come together, stop buying these types of products, it’s simple., do you really need a tiger rug, etc. I don’t think so.,

  37. alzahmi
    July 2, 2014

    I wish no one kill animal….. Plz let them in own. Life in the wild

  38. Marlene
    July 2, 2014

    STOP KILLING!!!!!!

  39. aryl
    July 2, 2014

    Curse those people who kill animals..

  40. RDM
    July 2, 2014

    This animals are a treasure,very unique and very beautiful.

  41. Ian Cheng
    July 2, 2014

    Whoever get caught should be death sentence.Put pressure on China.

  42. Marie Rickard
    July 2, 2014

    The great cats are a vital part of the world ecosystem. We hurt ourselves by not protecting them.

  43. patti Mckinley
    July 2, 2014

    You are sick! Stop immediately!

  44. Jean Albini
    July 2, 2014

    The disrespect for wildlife by China is rampant Not just in India but also in Africa. These creatures deserve protection! What makes people think they have the right to abuse animals! What kind of world would tolerate this!

  45. Riya
    July 2, 2014

    Tigers are not your pets…they deserve to be free and survive in the natural habitat, peacefully, without the interference of humans who kill them for status and money. Its ridiculous. The people poaching, trafficking and caging tigers, should be ashamed of themselves. Have a heart, stop being greedy, their life is more precious than your greed.

  46. Steve Hole
    July 2, 2014

    Uneducated poor people, who do not know what we know are unfortunately caught up in poaching, they do need to be educated, as part of there punishment, some could also go on to protect what is everyone’s the Tiger that roams freely in the wild, poor local villagers are the key to future protection, its a very complex situation in India, and unless you live there as i do, you may not understand the balance of wildlife and people.

  47. Haley
    July 2, 2014

    I’m disgusted. These poor babies. They deserve to be HAPPY AND FREE!

  48. Colin Harris
    July 2, 2014

    Its a shame the natural world had to share the Earth with humans, we don’t deserve to.

  49. Carol Wynn
    July 2, 2014

    Animals kill for food, Humans kill for greed.

  50. Sudhir Sajwan
    July 2, 2014

    We should think about Lion’s safety before they become extinct.

  51. Dorothy Morrison
    July 2, 2014

    PLEASE stop this before there are none left.

  52. Maria
    July 2, 2014

    The killing, trafficking and illegal breeding of tigers should be crimes punished severely by law. Now is the time when implementing laws to protect tigers is a necessity! There’s no space for reflection only action! It is very immoral to kill animals that have every right to live and these beautiful cats are disappearing fast, almost completely extinct thanks to unethical and ignorant civilians! Governments need to act, the international court must intervene if India’s authorities are too corrupt to.

  53. Pamela Geier
    July 2, 2014

    Stop poaching. Stop killing. Stop caging. Tigers are NOT yours to control.

  54. vania
    July 2, 2014

    Parabéns pelas punições.

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