Illegal trade thrives amid efforts to save wild tigers
- As the world celebrates the Year of the Tiger in 2022, humans continue to threaten the cat’s long-term survival in the wild: killing, buying and selling tigers and their prey, and encroaching into their last shreds of habitat. That’s why they are Earth’s most endangered big cat.
- Undercover video footage has revealed an enlarged tiger farm run by an organized criminal organization in Laos. It’s one of many captive-breeding facilities implicated in the black market trade — blatantly violating an international treaty on trade in endangered species.
- Under a 2007 CITES decision, tigers should be bred only for conservation purposes. Evidence shows that this decision is being disregarded by some Asian nations, including China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. But CITES has done little to enforce it, which could be done through sanctions, say critics.
- With the world’s second Global Tiger Summit and important international meetings on biodiversity and endangered species looming, it’s a crucial year for tigers. In the wild, some populations are increasing, some stable, and others shrinking: Bengal tigers in India are faring best, while Malayan tigers hover on extinction’s edge.
In Sin City, the illegal tiger-farming business is thriving.
In new, covert drone footage, tigers and bears pace inside prison-like cement and corrugated steel cages near a casino complex — a newly built, expanded commercial captive-breeding facility on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos. The video, obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), reveals that tiger numbers there have doubled since the U.K. nonprofit’s 2015 “Sin City” exposé.
Farming tigers for their parts, like pigs and chickens, violates an international treaty, though it continues here in Laos, and in China, Vietnam and Thailand. The illicit trade also violates Laos’s commitment to convert tiger farms to zoos and stop breeding.
“This is no zoo,” says Debbie Banks, the EIA’s campaign leader for tigers and wildlife crime. “There’s no conservation or educational value and [the facility is] not open to the public.”
The EIA’s 2015 report documented rampant wildlife trafficking within Laos’s tax-free Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ), home to the Kings Romans Casino and an adjoining Chinatown district. The EIA called the complex an upscale, lawless playground “catering to the desires of visiting Chinese gamblers and tourists.” Undercover investigators discovered restaurants serving rare and exotic wildlife. Stores sold endangered species products. And a nascent tiger-farming industry allegedly supplied these establishments with tiger parts. When the EIA began its probe in 2014, this new venture had six tigers. Nine months later, there were 35. Now there are about 70.
Drone footage obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals a bear and tiger farm in Laos with at least 70 tigers, run by a known transnational organized crime group. Image courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Inside the Laotian ‘Special Crime Zone’
The Hong Kong-based Kings Romans Group is run by notorious Chinese expat mobster Zhao Wei, who, in 2018, was accused of masterminding an international criminal organization by the U.S. government: trafficking in narcotics, humans and endangered species.
Recent news of massive meth busts and women forced into prostitution shows that these activities continue. Karl Ammann, a Swiss counter-trafficking conservationist who visited the site in 2019, said “It’s not just a Special Economic Zone, but a ‘Special Crime Zone’ where anything goes.” Laos has been a wildlife smuggling hotspot for decades, abetted by high-level government officials. “But drugs are definitely the big money spinner and gambling is a cover for it all,” Ammann says.
Thousands of captive tigers are bred in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. These farm-raised cats feed demand for their skins, bones, claws, teeth and meat. This low-risk, high-value enterprise, masterminded by international crime syndicates, drives poaching of Asia’s last 5,000 wild tigers. China is the top consumer; Vietnam ranks second. These inbred, crossbred captive tigers can never be released into the wild. They have no conservation value.
As the world celebrates the Year of the Tiger in 2022, human actions continue threatening their wild survival: slaughtering or trading live tigers and their prey and encroaching on their last shreds of habitat. It’s why tigers are the most endangered of big cats.
But smart conservation and enforcement has turned the tide in some places, with populations holding steady or even increasing — offering promise for wild tigers.
Global state of the tiger
It’s a pivotal year for the tiger (Panthera tigris). This year, global conservation authority the IUCN will update tiger numbers on its Red List of Threatened Species, which tracks extinction risk.
The 2nd Global Tiger Summit is scheduled for Sept. 5 in Vladivostock, Russia. (There’s no word on whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact attendance.) In 2010, at the first summit, tiger range governments committed to doubling numbers in their countries by the next Year of the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac, which is 2022. There have been mixed results, with some populations rising, others stable — and some falling.
Also this year, representatives of the world’s nations hope to meet in Kunming, China, to finalize a plan to halt cascading species extinctions, during the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). However, no date has been set yet. The meeting was postponed for two years by the pandemic; fears are that the current COVID-19 surge may bring more delays.
In November, parties to CITES, the convention on the global wildlife trade — a treaty signed by 184 nations including Laos, China, Thailand and Vietnam — will convene in Panama. Since tigers are endangered, commercial trade is banned under the treaty, while tiger farming remains a contentious issue.
The wild tiger prognosis varies widely, according to subspecies and location. The Balinese, Caspian and Javanese tigers are extinct. Six subspecies remain, with the South China tiger () extinct in the wild. “Bengals [P. t. tigris, native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan] are doing great,” says John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program director at Panthera, a New York-based conservation organization. “Amur tigers [P. t. altaica, also known as Siberian tigers], are doing OK, and everything else is doing pretty poorly.”
Sumatran tigers (P. t. sumatrae) are “really struggling,” heavily poached, with their tropical habitat being razed for palm oil. But the subspecies hangs on along the island’s forested mountain spine. “It’s not like what we saw 15 years ago in Cambodia and Laos, where [Indochinese] tigers just disappeared, almost overnight,” Goodrich says. Wild tigers are extinct in Vietnam and Cambodia and almost gone from Myanmar. But Indochinese tigers (P. t. corbetti) are holding their own — or possibly increasing — in Thailand, mostly within the massive Western Forest Complex. Its military-style “smart patrols” may offer the best enforcement in Southeast Asia.
Malayan tigers (P. t. jacksoni) are on the edge, with the nation “poised to lose tigers within the next, say, five years –– or rescue them,” Goodrich says, noting that the government has stepped up and seems engaged to save tigers.
India’s Bengals are faring best. They number roughly two-thirds of the world’s wild tiger population, 2,967 as of the 2018 census. But the country’s 53 tiger reserves and additional protected areas are surrounded by a growing human population. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, important tiger habitats in India are being quietly chipped away, and many environmental nonprofits and environmental experts have been silenced or excluded from decision-making.
“Tigers in India are increasing in some areas, largely due to their extraordinary resilience and improved enforcement,” says Belinda Wright, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Law enforcement has dismantled numerous criminal trafficking gangs, but the WPSI tallied 56 poaching and seizure deaths in 2021, the most since 2001.
While tigers in South Asia are comparatively well-protected, there’s still serious poaching in Southeast Asia, Goodrich says. “Each country needs its own nuanced anti-poaching interventions,” he explains, due to varied perpetrators, poaching and trafficking methods.
The wild card for tigers is climate change. In Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangroves, a key habitat, sea levels are rising faster than almost anywhere on Earth, for example; scientists predict that much of this delta could be underwater in 15 to 25 years.
But no one has yet modeled climate impacts across the wider tiger range. India of late has seen blisteringly hot weather, breaking 122-year-old records. Monsoon rains are also changing in intensity, timing and geographic range.
A precipitous slide and a valuable commodity
The tiger’s precipitous slide toward extinction dates to the dawn of the 20th century. When Rudyard Kipling published The Jungle Book in 1894, about 100,000 wild tigers roamed across 30 Asian nations, Today, they number perhaps 5,000, split among five subspecies, living in small pockets across 10 countries. Tigers are now extinct in 93% of their former range.
They’ve been wiped out due to habitat loss and other human activities: exterminated as pests or due to conflict with people; killed in trophy hunts across the Indian subcontinent; and slaughtered for pelts during the 1960s U.S. and European fur coat fashion craze. Tigers were first protected as an endangered species under CITES in 1975, making commercial trade illegal.
With a growing thirst for valuable wild-sourced tigers, Chinese demand hit tiger populations in India, Nepal and Russia by the early 1990s. Tigers were nearly wiped out from strongholds like Bandhavgarh in India, which was made a tiger reserve in 1993. A global poaching crisis was declared the next year. Now, says Banks from the EIA, “Facebook and WeChat are awash with tiger parts and products for sale.” She adds: “It’s completely out of control.”
Tiger parts have been used for millennia, worn as talismans and employed as cures. Nearly everything from whiskers to tail is used in traditional Chinese medicine, though there’s no scientific proof for their efficacy. Bones are highly coveted, used to treat maladies ranging from joint pain, epilepsy, baldness and toothaches, to ulcers, fevers, headaches — and flagging sexual. performance.
More recently, a report to CITES found that “‘wealth’ [is] replacing ‘health’ as a primary form of consumer motivation,” with tiger parts “now consumed less as medicine and more as exotic luxury products.” The items most sought by elites include tiger bone wine (produced by steeping an entire tiger skeleton in rice wine), tiger skin décor, and meat (served as a rare delicacy). In one highly publicized case, a Chinese tycoon identified only as Mr. Xu was convicted of eating at least three tigers smuggled into China. He admitted to having “a quirky appetite for eating tiger penis and drinking tiger blood.”
In another investigation, the EIA found that trafficked wild tigers were being laundered through China’s legal domestic trade in farmed tiger skins. In 2020, a whistleblower report by the nonprofit China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation alleged that the Qinhuangdao Wildlife Rescue dissected tigers and sold their parts, posting evidence on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. The Qinhuangdao sanctuary is run by the state-sanctioned China Wildlife Conservation Association — an organization that many foreign NGOs must partner with to work in the Asian country.
Citing disease risk, China shuttered wildlife markets and at least 19,000 farms raising wild animals for food in 2020. However, an estimated 6,000 tigers in China are still being raised in legal facilities that are designated for tourism, conservation or breeding operations.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that his nation should prioritize the preservation and development of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Ammann says he wonders whether government approval could lead to those questioning TCM effectiveness being charged with a criminal act.
Inside Sin City
Asia’s black market wildlife trade continues to be big business, valued at up to $23 billion a year by the U.N. Environment Programme. Organized criminal networks are often involved.
“Sin City” offers a concrete example of how the illegal wildlife industry works within larger organized crime networks. Zhao Wei is chairman and owner of an 80% stake in the Group, which was granted a 99-year lease in 1997 over the 3,000-hectare (7,400-acre) Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ).
He’s also an alleged notorious organized crime kingpin, sanctioned in 2018 by the U.S. Treasury Department. “The Zhao Wei crime network engages in an array of horrendous illicit activities, including human trafficking and child prostitution, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking,” said Sigal Mandelker, the former undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department. Wei’s operations are alleged to be fueled by bribery and money laundering, run through the casino.
Wei dismissed the U.S. allegations as “a unilateral, extraterritorial, unreasonable and hegemonic act of ulterior motives and malicious rumor-mongering,” claiming he runs “legal, ordinary business operations supervised by the legal authorities.”
Wei reportedly runs the zone as his sovereign fiefdom, a de facto outpost for an elite Chinese clientele just a two-hour drive from the border with China’s Yunnan province. Mandarin is the primary language spoken in Sin City, while businesses there use the Chinese yuan. Clocks are set an hour behind the rest of Laos — to Beijing time.
Kings Romans lies in the heart of the “Golden Triangle,” where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet on the Mekong. The region was given that nickname in the 1970s when it emerged as a major opium grower and narcotics-trafficking center.
Today the Golden Triangle is pumping out methamphetamine. Laos’s two largest-ever seizures were made in Bokeo province, where Wei operates: 55.6 million methamphetamine tablets were confiscated in an October raid and another 36.5 million meth tablets and 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of crystal meth were seized in January. Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, attributed surging drug production and smuggling in the Golden Triangle to organized crime.
But Wei’s alleged criminal dealings incorporate a diverse portfolio of products. “The dark side of the casino industry includes human trafficking for the sex trade,” the EIA wrote in its 2015 report. Those activities have lately been all over the news. Girls were recruited for call center jobs, selling stock in Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone companies. When they couldn’t meet outrageous quotas, the girls were then forced into prostitution or held hostage to pay back companies who “bought” them for more than $2,000, according to the nonprofit Radio Free Asia. The news service also reported that “hundreds” of women are falling for the scam.
Laotian authorities weren’t given entry to investigate. “There’s clearly high-level political support for Wei,” Banks says. That’s not surprising, since the government owns 20% of the special economic zone. Sources say the complex is beyond law enforcement’s reach.
Wei is now bankrolling a $50 million port on the Mekong, just upstream from Kings Romans. Lao Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany attended the new port’s groundbreaking.
Experts including Brian Eyler, senior fellow and director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, believe the transportation hub could supercharge smuggling. “My guess is the new port will mostly facilitate commerce, legal and illicit, of goods from China that will benefit Chinese commercial interests, legal and illicit, in Laos,” he told Radio Free Asia.
Wildlife trade expert Karl Ammann adds that “there will be very-little-to-no customs and immigration control.” And the franchise is expanding near the Laos-Cambodia border, with a compound that includes a new airport.
The illegal tiger trade, run with government complicity, adds another element to the lurid illicit mix. A 2016 investigation by The Guardian found that the Lao government licensed two tiger farms and got kickbacks from smugglers trafficking rare animals worth millions of dollars. In 2018, Laos was listed by the U.S. State Department as a nation where the government “actively engaged in or knowingly profited” from trafficking endangered species. The country is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and U.N. Convention Against Corruption.
Tigers farmed in Southeast Asia and South Africa
Laos was lauded in 2016 when officials committed to closing commercial tiger farms. But then the government pivoted, ordering the facilities to become zoos for “conservation, tourism and scientific purposes.”
Lao authorities conducted an audit before the pandemic hit, counting more than 300 tigers at the country’s five tiger farms. But the DNA and stripe patterns from these tigers are yet to be analyzed and used to support enforcement. Meanwhile there have been seizures of cubs coming into Vietnam from Laos, where clearly steps have not been taken to halt commercial breeding operations.
Tiger breeders across the world have concealed breeding and trading in various ways. The notorious Joe Exotic, of Tiger King fame, hid cubs in playpens in his living room during official inspections of his Oklahoma zoo. Before it was shut down for wildlife trafficking, tiger numbers remained fairly steady at the Tiger Temple in Thailand –– a Buddhist monastery that doubled as a tiger tourism venue; cubs or smuggled tigers replaced those that were butchered or sold.
Thailand isn’t just infamous for wildlife tourism, but it also ranks second in captive tiger numbers. Both there and in China, many tiger farms masquerade as entertainment while trading cats out the back.
Officials who seize trafficked tigers or inspect captive facilities have a powerful tool. A forensics lab in Thailand continues to build a DNA database and stripe profile for its captive tigers and has tallied about 2,000 tigers.
But laws remain weak, and enforcement is lacking. In one high-profile bust, Thai police captured wildlife trade kingpin Boonchai Bach, only to see the case dismissed for lack of evidence. The Thai Tiger Temple’s abbot was never tried on trafficking charges despite undeniable DNA proof.
Vietnam has registered tiger farms, but the number of people raising unregistered big cats in their backyards and basements has mushroomed. More than 100 are thought to be in the northern Nghe An province alone.
However, enforcement in Vietnam recently “streaked ahead,” says Banks, though “seizures of contraband [tigers] are just a fraction of what may actually be moving.” Last summer, 24 tigers were seized in Nghe An, likely to have come from Laos. Statistics compiled in a “Skin and Bones” report by TRAFFIC, an NGO investigating the wildlife trade, found that about 90% of tigers confiscated in Vietnam from 2000 to 2018 came from Laos.
In recent years, South Africa has leapt into the tiger game, intensively breeding for the commercial trade. Under national law, the cats are considered an “alien species,” with farming, hunting and killing permitted. From 2016 to 2021, the country issued 51 permits for the export of live tigers or parts, according to a new report from Vienna-based FOUR PAWS International. Live tigers were shipped to “zoos” in Vietnam (which took 28); China (25); and Bangladesh (eight).
“Breeders, taxidermists, agents, slaughterhouses, and foreign buyers … are all active in exporting live animals, big cat parts and derivatives from South Africa to known wildlife trade hotspots around the world,” says Fiona Miles, the NGO’s South Africa director.
CITES and tigers
Under a 2007 CITES decision, tigers should be bred only for conservation purposes, and “not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.” Clearly, that decision is being disregarded and CITES has done little to enforce it, which could be done through sanctions. And while the convention primarily deals with international trade, Banks points out that “there is a long precedent of CITES making recommendations about internal [national] markets for species that have included rhinos, sturgeon and Tibetan antelope.” Yet experts note that for China, it has become a purely domestic matter: The nation seems to feel it has the right to make its own decisions on tiger trade within its own borders.
At CITES’ COP17 meeting in 2016, delegates resolved to send a mission to survey “facilities of concern” that may be leaking captive-bred tigers into the black market. Two years later, the CITES Secretariat identified facilities in seven countries: China (37), Lao PDR (six), Thailand (10), Vietnam (seven), the Czech Republic (two) — and the U.S. (six), where tigers are bred as cub-petting attractions, not for their body parts.
The criteria for “facilities of concern” included previous links to trafficking or facilities possessing 49 tigers or more, a number that critics say overlooks smaller breeders and traffickers.
Little happened to move the missions forward until 2021, when five nonprofits received a draft “facility inspection manual” commissioned by the CITES Secretariat and were given just a week to comment. That caused an uproar: The document, according to the NGOs, was a “tigerized” version of a manual compiled for reptiles, written by two overtly pro-tiger farming advocates, Kirsten Conrad and Hank Jenkins. It completely ignored criminality and corruption, was highly criticized, and ultimately shelved.
The surveys are likely to be conducted this year, though inspectors “will only visit a sample of [facilities],” CITES Secretariat official David Morgan wrote in an email. He explained that inspections will “include an expert from our partners in the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime” and will also look into national regulations regarding captive facilities.
Banks says that implementing the 2007 CITES decision and ending commercial breeding is key to reducing demand and protecting wild tigers in the long term.
The good news: When tigers, their habitat and prey are protected, they bounce back. Females can produce two to three cubs every two years, says Panthera’s Goodrich. And while threats are exponentially greater than when he was starting out in conservation in the 1980s, “people are inspired and charging forward with new ideas that hopefully can make a difference.”
Banner image: Tourists petting a tiger cub at Doc Antle’s Myrtle Beach Tiger Safari in South Carolina, U.S. Antle faces federal charges for wildlife trafficking. Image © Steve Winter/National Geographic.
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