According to the best estimates, some 100,000 tigers used to roam through parts of Asia.
But that was more than a century ago. Today, experts estimate that worldwide only some 3,800 tigers have survived in the wild.
This marks a slight improvement for the big cats over a low point of some 3,200 five years ago.
According to Ravi Velloor, a veteran editor at The Straits Times of Singapore, more than two thirds of tigers surviving in the wild can be found on the Indian subcontinent, where India and Nepal, he says, have recently made “impressive strides in conservation.”
In those two countries, tiger populations had declined sharply in the past due to poaching, deforestation, and the loss of good-quality habitat.
Of the 13 “tiger-range” nations of the world, seven—Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—are located in Southeast Asia.
“Compared with their South Asian peers, Southeast Asia, sad to say, is a laggard,” said Velloor, in a commentary published by The Straits Times last month.
Driving the trafficking and trade in tigers are wealthy Chinese, living both in China and in Southeast Asia, who regard tiger-bone wine and pelts as luxury items and signs of their status. In violation of China’s own laws, they work in complicity with government officials.
According to an investigative report published by The Guardian in 2015, China’s wealthy believe that tiger-bone wine can be used to treat rheumatism and impotence.
When it comes to tigers’ pelts, The Guardian reported that the rich in China place a high value on tiger-skin rugs and stuffed tigers, which are sought as “status symbols among an elite obsessed with conspicuous consumption.”
Not surprisingly, The Guardian found that like ivory products, “tiger skins and tiger bone wine are often presented to officials as bribes.”
Three years ago, during President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption in the Chinese military, several tiger pelts were among what The Guardian called “a huge haul of luxury goods” seized when a senior officer, Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, was put on trial for corruption.
A market for tiger parts similar to China’s can be found in Vietnam, where wealthy patrons of the trade share the Chinese belief in the purported medical benefits of tiger- bone wine, made by steeping the bone in rice wine.
In 2015, the Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre reported that trading parts of endangered animals, including tigers, had gone “rampant” in Vietnam.
Making the situation more challenging, criminal gangs and syndicates have become involved in the trafficking of many forms of wildlife in Southeast Asia, including tigers.
Why should we care about this?
As the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has explained, saving tigers is a cost-effective means of preserving much that is essential to life on earth.
The tiger is an “umbrella” species, helping to protect its habitat.
Tigers eat herbivores, such as deer and wild pigs, thus preserving the vegetation around them.
“By rescuing them we rescue everything under their ecological umbrella…including the world’s last great forests, whose carbon storage mitigates climate change,” wrote the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Carter S. Roberts, the WWF’s president and CEO in a commentary published in The Washington Post in 2010.
For example, protecting tigers by halting deforestation will also preserve the carbon storage that these forests provide.
Extinction in three Southeast Asian nations
Debbie Banks, the Tiger Campaign leader for the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), says that in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, tigers are now “functionally extinct.”
This means, said Banks, that the tiger population in those three countries is so small that the remaining tigers are no longer breeding.
Widespread poaching, or illegal hunting, has contributed to this negative outcome in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
EIA said that in Laos, the discovery of three dead tigers in the country’s Khammouane province in January this year underscored “an urgent need for the country’s government to keep its word and shut down tiger farming operations.”
EIA believes that it’s highly likely that the three tigers came from a farm.
Research shows that tiger farms are often used for commercial purposes. Some tigers are on display for tourists, who pay to see them. But others are killed so that their parts can be sold.
Some farms also produce tiger-bone wine for sale.
In China, tiger-farm proponents have argued that tiger farming will relieve the pressure on wild tigers. But it hasn’t worked out this way, with many consumers still preferring wild tigers.
But China’s laws allow for the trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers on farms, which creates opportunities for taxidermists to “launder” tiger parts illegally acquired from the wild tigers.
The taxidermists get licenses to sell, having been permitted to buy the skins of captive tigers, which are available from licensed captive tiger breeding or keeping facilities, including farms, zoos, and circuses.
The government of Laos, meanwhile, made a pledge at an international conference in November of last year to audit its tiger farms, but the audit has yet to be completed.
Debbie Banks of EIA said that despite Laos’s pledge, “tiger farms across the country have been operating with impunity, with no monitoring, inspection, or regulation for years”
Banks noted that it’s not only an audit that’s required of Laos but also investigations to hold those responsible for trafficking tigers to account.
On the positive side, at the end of January, the U.S. government made a move that could result in limiting the sale of tiger parts in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, located in Laos near the country’s border with Thailand.
The U.S. Treasury Department declared the Kings Roman Group that runs the zone to be an organized crime group engaged in drug trafficking, money laundering, human and wildlife trafficking, and child prostitution.
An EIA investigation several years ago had revealed an open trade at the casino in tiger and bear parts as well as in captive animals being held there.
The U.S. has thrown a spotlight on the Golden Triangle, but whether or not this leads to a limitation on the sale of tiger parts will now depend on moves taken by the Laotian authorities.
In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation, deforestation and the spread of oil palm plantations on the island of Sumatra have destroyed the natural habitat for tigers and other wildlife.
In a book titled The Extinction Market written by Vanda Felbab-Brown and published last year, the author says that the total population of tigers in Indonesia was then estimated at only 371.
The best news out of Southeast Asia
The best news out of Southeast Asia in recent years comes from Thailand, where in 2016, officials from the Department of National Parks shut down the notorious Tiger Temple.
The temple was masquerading as a center for conservation, where visitors could pose for pictures with tigers.
During a raid, the authorities confiscated tigers and other endangered wildlife from the temple, which is located in the country’s Kanchanaburi province in western Thailand.
Thai officials found tiger carcasses on the premises and caught a monk trying to flee in a car packed with hundreds of amulets made from tigers’ teeth and fur.
But according to Debbie Banks, two years later no one has been prosecuted for the temple’s trade in tiger parts.
In the latest development, the people behind the Tiger Temple have started building a zoo under the name of Golden Tiger Co. Ltd.
The zoo has yet to be granted a license.
Thailand deserves credit for helping to protect a number of Indochinese tigers, a fast disappearing sub-species that can be found near the country’s border with Myanmar.
In the meantime, Thailand’s Hua Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the western part of the country has become home to the largest population of tigers living in the wild in Thailand. UNESCO lists it as a World Heritage site.
On the negative side, however, Banks says that Thailand also holds between 1,450 and 2,500 tigers in captivity on tiger farms.
Laos has an estimated 300 to 400 tigers on farms, and Vietnam holds nearly 200.
But China outpaces them all, with an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 tigers in captivity.
Possible solutions to the problem
Debbie Banks sees an urgent need for “far greater action from world leaders to eliminate the market for big cat parts and products.”
China has drawn praise for beginning in 2017 to shut down the illegal trading in elephant ivory that had resulted in the killing of thousands of the African pachyderms.
But Banks say that while China’s President Xi Jinping has taken steps to ban his country’s domestic ivory trade, “there has not been an equally high level of attention on more endangered species such as tigers.”
“If he is serious about the fight against illegal wildlife trade, he will launch a campaign calling for an end to all trade in all tiger and other big cat parts and products, from all sources, wild and captive bred,” Banks says.
Additionally, she suggests legal reforms to phase out tiger farming and the trade in captive-bred tiger parts, the destruction of stockpiles of big cat parts, cooperation with the police and customs officials in source and transit countries, and work with other governments to reduce the demand for big cat parts.
The Singapore commentator Ravi Velloor says that China has already made a start toward improved protection of tigers by working to restore forest cover that had been depleted by an estimated 90 percent by the mid-20th century.
As Vellor notes, in the remaining tiger strongholds in Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces, “large-scale logging has led to the loss of tiger habitat” and the collapse of ecosystem protections, leading to severe droughts and massive flooding.
Now, he says, restoring the forests has led to a slowly recovering tiger population. And Beijing has announced the formation of nine national parks to protect endangered species and the sources of major watersheds.
These efforts could, of course, be undermined unless China begins to counter the widespread Chinese demand for tiger parts.
Vellor suggests that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has never been known for taking quick action, try to induce China to fund “one or two key ecological initiatives in the region.”
This, he says, could amount to a “soft power play that would supplement panda diplomacy and earn Beijing far more goodwill at the grassroots than the Belt and Road Initiative that is viewed with some suspicion.”
The Belt and Road Initiative, known widely as the BRI, is an ambitious global trade and infrastructure project intended to link China with Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
But some scientists fear that the BRI may at a number of points cause permanent environmental degradation.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.