Photograph by Steve Winter
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Tigers photographed by a remote camera cool off in a watering hole in Bandhavgarh National Park, India.
Photograph by Steve Winter

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

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.

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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 TimesJune 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.