The Debate | Opinion

This Tiger Cub is Only the Tip of the Iceberg of an Illegal Trade

Many Asian countries have passed strong laws against the tiger trade, but implementation remains patchy. That needs to change.

This Tiger Cub is Only the Tip of the Iceberg of an Illegal Trade

The three-month-old tiger cub that was found in the possession of three suspects arrested by Thai police on April 5, 2022.

Credit: Wildlife Justice Commission

On April 5, police in Thailand arrested three men for the illegal possession and trade of a tiger cub. The media photos illustrate the stark difference between the vulnerability of the three-month-old cub, sitting in an open plastic basket, no doubt scared and confused, and the three guilty men in handcuffs surrounded by police in a shopping mall car park. This story demonstrates the horrific reality of the illicit international tiger trade and what is needed to combat it.

The global conservation organization, WWF congratulates Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division and officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation on this recent seizure and arrests. This case demonstrates the positive outcomes that careful investigations and intelligence-led law enforcement can achieve. To effectively halt international crime, cooperation and information sharing between law enforcement agencies across borders is crucial. The perpetrators in this case allegedly confessed that the tiger cub was smuggled into Thailand from Laos.

It’s estimated that at least 2,359 tigers were seized as whole specimens, parts, or products from 2000-2018. The number is likely much higher as much of the trade remains hidden or unreported. With only 3,900 tigers estimated to remain in the wild globally poaching and trafficking are amongst the biggest threats pushing them towards extinction. This is driven by demand for the use of tigers and tiger parts as decoration, purported medicine, health tonics, aphrodisiacs, luxury food, talismans, pets and more.

Cubs are also often traded to rear for future trade in their parts and products once grown. Tiger farms are facilities that keep and breed tigers in captivity for the purpose of commercial trade in the animals and their parts and products.

Under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products. Yet there are thought to be more than 8,000 tigers in over 300 facilities across Asia, from large zoos and entertainment facilities open to the public, to small backyard operations, and even small, lightless basements.  Most are found in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. CITES plans missions to these countries to investigate their captive tiger facilities and their involvement in trade. We encourage CITES officials to conduct these visits as soon as possible.

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Between 2012 and 2015, over 30 percent of the tigers seized globally as specimens, parts, or products were suspected to have come from a captive source. By feeding the trade, tiger farms strain law enforcement and perpetuate and even stimulate demand, which also drives the poaching of wild tigers. That is why WWF is one of many groups calling for the phasing out of tiger farms. Yet the political will to stop the damage from tiger farms on wild tiger populations is often weak and influenced by corruption, issues that are compounded by under-resourced law enforcement agencies.

Authorities must treat the illegal tiger trade as the serious crime that it is, through successful arrests like the one in Thailand. However, these arrests are not the end of the story. The investigations should continue into their connections and finances to reveal other crimes and illicit contacts, as well as the source of the tiger cub. A strong case should also be made for the prosecution and conviction of these men, with penalties serving as effective deterrents to future crimes.

In some cases, the enforcement of laws against the tiger trade is strong, but all too often is not prioritized and is ill-resourced. In this Year of the Tiger, a new Global Tiger Recovery Program is set to be developed, agreed by tiger range countries, including hopefully Thailand and Laos. Within this program, we must see a strong focus on trade, including commitments to form national wildlife crime task forces; to improve intelligence gathering, information sharing, and cooperation on tiger crimes, criminals, and criminal networks; to stop the consumer demand fueling the trade; and to phase out tiger farms.

We want a future with tigers in the wild, not in plastic baskets.