A Tiger’s Stripes Help Thailand Jail the Poacher Who Killed It

Camera traps set up to aid tiger science allow police to link a dead animal to one of the nation’s wildlife sanctuaries.
(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)
Nov 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

When police found the parts, skin, and meat of a tiger in a car in western Thailand, they were almost certain a crime had been committed. There are only 100 or so tigers left in the wild in Thailand, and it is illegal to kill them.

But their chances of nailing the suspect for the crime were slim.

“Typically, in that circumstance, the poachers will just say they shot the tiger in Myanmar, where wildlife laws are lax, and traffickers have little fear or punishment,” said Peter Clyne, deputy director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program.

But thanks to a technological collaboration between Clyne’s organization and Thai wildlife officials, this tiger’s remains included a vital clue to its origins. The pattern of stripes on its skin matched those of a tiger that had been photographed in Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Over the past 20 years, the team has set up hundreds of automated camera traps in the 600,000-acre reserve, capturing thousands of images of its tigers in order to estimate their numbers and study their movements.

(Photos: Wildlife Conservation Society)

“Every tiger has those distinctive stripes, but the patterns are unique to each tiger,” Clyne said. “Once you know how to I.D. a tiger by its stripes, it’s just like using fingerprints, but less tricky.”

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These images allowed officials to identify the poached tiger as a female from Huai Kha Khaeng, last photographed with two cubs by a camera trap in April this year.

The fate of the cubs remains unknown. But the fate of the poacher is more certain: Police have taken him into custody, where he now awaits trial, WCS announced Nov. 18.

A poacher caught in a similar way in 2011 received a five-year prison sentence, Clyne said. “When this evidence gets before a judge, it’s going to be hard for them to say they killed this animal outside of Thailand and were just bringing it in.”

Today, only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, a decline of about 97 percent from a century ago owing to poaching for the international black market. Every bit of a tiger—its skin, bones, claws, whiskers, and meat—commands a high price in China and other Asian nations. Wildlife officials suspect the poacher was transporting the animal’s parts to a restaurant, where tiger meat is served both for its supposed health benefits and as a status symbol. Tiger hunting trophies are also in heavy demand.

Clyne said it is vital that poachers face consequences when they’re caught, to deter future poaching and save the world’s remaining wild tigers.