By Chere Di Boscio
Tigers: they’re iconic; the perfect symbol of ferocious power, stealth and exoticism. But shockingly, there are only 3,200 tigers left in the entire world–a stark contrast to the at least 100,000 that roamed the earth at the start of the 20th century. What’s even more shocking is that over 80% of this decline has happened over the past 30 years.
Why? Well, loss of habitat is partly to blame. Tigers normally need to eat large animals like deer and boar. But with humans encroaching on the territory of all animals, such medium sized beasts are few and far between, meaning that large predators are being forced to subsist on tiny creatures like birds and rats, which in turn often leads to malnutrition and starvation.
But the biggest threat by far is poaching, and there’s one key driver behind this illegal activity: Chinese medicine.
In 1950, some 4,000 South China tigers roamed the country; but at the end of that decade, as part of China’s Great Leap Forward, Mao declared the cats to be one of the ‘four pests’ that threatened progress. He organised huge eradication campaigns, and within a few years, under 1,000 remained, and now the . South China tiger has not been spotted by biologists or government officials in the wild for over 35 years.
Although tiger parts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 5,000 years, demand for these animal parts skyrocketed in tandem with China’s expanding industrialisation in the 1980s. The country’s newfound wealth and greater spending power fueled the demand, especially as ingesting exotic animals became a status symbol.
‘The Asian medicine trade is causing this out-of-control killing of tigers in the belief tiger parts have medicinal value. They don’t. There are highly organised criminal gangs going into forests to kill tigers to sell the parts for Asian medicine. It’s a very lucrative illegal industry and the result is tigers are now on the brink of extinction,” says animal expert and TV presenter Liz Bonnin.
Bonnin has presented British TV shows including Bang Goes The Theory and, most recently, Operation Snow Tiger, which looked at the plight of the Siberian tiger, of which there are only 300 left in the wild.
Along with the World Wildlife Federation, Bonnin aims to educate the public about tiger conservation by promoting ecotourism, restoring degraded forest and grasslands to give tigers a home, reducing human/tiger conflict, helping catch poachers, removing snares, and keeping the tiger trade illegal.
Buying and selling tiger parts has been prohibited in China since 1993, and yet because of a deeply embedded belief that tiger bodies cure diseases (well, mainly impotence), the black market for these has continued to be strong. So strong, that in late October of this year, China announced it would permit the animal parts to be used for scientific, medical and cultural purposes. In other words, the ban on killing tigers for profit would be lifted.
This would have surely sounded the death knell for tigers in the wild, which are already on the brink of extinction. But it also would have encouraged further growth in yet another sickening trade: tiger farms.
Many a tourist has been duped into believing these farms are ‘orphanages’ for cubs. Foreigners pay to pet and feed the cubs, which are actually born as the result of tiger ‘farming.’ Their ultimate destiny is to be chopped up into parts for the Asian medicine trade.
The Chinese are under no such delusions about the farms; they’re fully aware of their function, and even believe that their existence lifts the stigma off of buying tiger parts. “The argument put forward by the tiger-farming lobby is that farmed tiger products will flood the market, relieving pressure on wild tigers,” said Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international campaigning organisation. This is a ridiculous notion – what has happened as a result of these farms is that demand has increased, since consumers don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong by killing captive tigers. And since wild tigers are ‘free’ – compared to those raised for a cost in farms – poaching has actually gone up.
Fortunately, after environmental groups raised a huge outcry when the Chinese government announced they would lift the ban, the Chinese have said they will ‘delay’ their decision until they have ‘studied the possible outcomes’ of allowing the sale of tiger parts. But given that country’s history of animal cruelty, it seems unlikely the ban will stick.
How You Can Help
It’s not too late for us to help save the tiger. So how can you help?
- First of all, buy products that carry the sustainable palm oil logo to ensure you’re not supporting plantations that are destroying Sumatra’s forests, where tigers and other endangered animals live.
- If you know of a Chinese medicine practitioner who is using tiger parts, blow the whistle! You can do so by contacting Acres.
- Never, ever visit a tiger ‘petting zoo’ or ‘orphanage’. These are almost certainly illegal tiger farms.
- Symbolically adopt a tiger. Funds raised will help anti-poaching teams.
- Make a donation to Leonardo DiCaprio’s WWF partnership to help save the tiger. The main goal is to double the tiger population by 2022 by putting political pressure on governments to take measures to stop poaching.
- Never go to a circus that uses tigers. This is a list of some of the cruellest ones to avoid.
Tigers deserve much better than to be ground up for so some old man can have more sex, or some insecure rich fool can decorate her hallway with a tiger skin rug. As we saw with the Chinese backtracking on the lifting of the tiger ban, our commitment to this cause does make a difference.
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