ASEAN Beat | Environment | Society | Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Must Confront its Illegal Tiger Problem

A new report raises fresh concerns about the impact of tiger breeding centers on the illegal tiger trade.

Preeti Jha
Southeast Asia Must Confront its Illegal Tiger Problem
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are more tigers living behind bars than in the wild. The figures are staggering: Fewer than 4,000 tigers roam free worldwide while double that number are estimated to be held in breeding facilities across Asia. The vast majority of these captive tigers are in Chinese farms, but the big cat is also being bred in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam — for profit not conservation.

A new report from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has found that over the past two decades more than half of the tigers seized in Thailand and a third of those in Vietnam came from captive breeding facilities. The analysis has renewed longstanding worries that “farming tigers leads to illegal trade in tiger parts and stimulates demand,” Dr. Richard Thomas, TRAFFIC’s global communications coordinator, told The Diplomat by email.

The demand for nearly every part of the endangered species — from tiger skins and bones to claws and meat — is perpetuated by the legal and illegal supply from captive tigers.

In 2007 the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global wildlife trade regulator with limited enforcement capacity, banned tiger farming for commercial purposes. But there has been mounting evidence of the role farms play in fueling tiger trafficking in Asia, mostly catering to Chinese and Vietnamese consumers. For buyers, tiger products are a status symbol to put on display or consumed for perceived health benefits — unproven by modern medicine.

The problem does not end in Asia: There have been reports of thousands of captive tigers across the United States too. They can be found in backyards and petting zoos or private breeding facilities, according to the conservation group WWF, which has campaigned for better regulation of the animals.

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The tiger farming lobby has long claimed that the trade in captive animals helps to relieve the pressure on wild tigers. But there is no evidence to back up their assertion. Instead research from wildlife groups has found that the facilities can confuse consumers and legitimize purchases. Tiger farms “send the wrong signal to the public,” said Steve Galster, founder of the anti-trafficking group Freeland.

Speaking from the organization’s Bangkok base, he said: “We have evidence that the presence of tiger farms has encouraged the poaching of wild tigers. There are cases where Thailand-based traffickers were competing with Laos-based tiger farms for the same buyers. They would source wild tigers from Malaysia and then undercut tiger farms by offering a cheaper price.” Another factor through to be driving the poaching of wild tigers is a known consumer preference for so-called authentic specimens.

A century ago some 100,000 tigers are thought to have roamed the planet; today there are an estimated 3,890 in the wild. There have been small successes in South Asia in recent years including an uptick in tiger numbers in India, home to the world’s largest wild tiger population — yet it remains a poaching hub. The picture is bleaker still in Southeast Asia: There are no more tigers in Cambodia, while in Laos and Vietnam they are “functionally extinct.” Malaysia and Myanmar have seen their tiger populations shrink while Indonesia is left with fewer than 400.

“The time for talking is over: words must be turned into action to prevent further Tiger loss,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia director and an author of the recent report said in a statement last week.

Action is what conservationists had hoped for from one Southeast Asian nation in particular. In 2016 Laos finally committed to phasing out tiger farms after earlier revelations that the government had for years licensed companies to breed, trade and export tiger parts. It was praised for setting a crucial regional precedent. But the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based group, has conversely found an increase in the number of Laos tiger farms with new facilities set up in 2017 and 2018. It’s called for imposing CITES trade sanctions on the landlocked nation.

A recent Washington Post story also documented the ongoing tiger trade in Laos including evidence of tigers held in new facilities and the sale of tiger products in markets. “Nowhere else is the animal’s commodification more complete than in tiger farming, where it is raised, butchered for parts and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. And nowhere else have these farms operated with greater impunity than in Laos,” wrote the reporter.

In neighboring Thailand, authorities made a high-profile raid of the country’s infamous “Tiger Temple” in 2016, seizing over 180 tigers. But new so-called tiger zoos, often a cover for breeding tigers and trading them in the black market, are now in operation.

In the absence of any real political will to take on tiger farms, where appalling conditions have been exposed, wildlife groups have run important campaigns about the serious problem of visiting such sites and engaging in activities such as tiger selfies.

When China tried to reverse a ban on the trade in tiger products for limited medicinal use last year there was an outcry from the Chinese public as well as international voices. In thousands of social media posts they spoke against the consumption of tigers. Officials later assured them the ban, for the time being, would stay in place.

“China has the potential to be the wildlife conservation leader in the region,” said Freeland’s Galster, pointing to successes from the country’s bold recent move to ban the elephant ivory trade. He’s among the longstanding backers — spanning from wildlife groups to the World Bank — of the phasing out of tiger farms. “If China were to take the first step it would accelerate the closing of tiger farms” in neighboring countries too, he said, where Chinese customers already travel in search of tiger products to exploit weaker law enforcement, especially in border towns.

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Countries have been discussing tougher regulation of tiger farms at the latest CITES meet, which was still under way in Geneva at the time of writing. It remains to be seen what concrete steps were agreed upon and whether Southeast Asia’s governments will now do what it takes to protect its tigers — both captive and wild.