Tigers Face Deadly Squeeze in the Wild (and Deadlier Threats in Captivity)

Poachers target the wild cats while 'farms' in China and other countries hope to turn them into rugs and tiger-bone wine.
(Photo: Flickr)
Dec 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Here’s the first harsh truth about the world’s biggest and most iconic cats: There are more tigers living in cages around the world than there are left in the wild.

Here’s the second, even harsher truth: Many of those caged tigers are being raised on “farms” like livestock to be slaughtered for their skins or to make expensive, illegal products such as tiger-bone wine.

“China has about 6,000 tigers on their farms, if not more,” said environmental investigator J.A. Mills, author of Blood of the Tiger. Similar facilities exist in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, according to a recent report from the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Meanwhile, at least 5,000 more tigers live in captivity in the U.S. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 94 percent of them live in shoddy roadside attractions or are kept in backyards as exotic pets.

By comparison, somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 tigers remain in the wild, where they face constant pressure from habitat loss and fragmentation, prey depletion, and poaching.

(See Pete Bethune and his team investigate tiger poachers in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

Those statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. Tigers are actually six subspecies, each of which is geographically and genetically distinct. At least half of the tiger population are Bengal tigers. Most of the others number just a few hundred each. The rarest subspecies, the South China tiger, is extinct in the wild. (A controversial recent study suggests there may be just two tiger subspecies left, but that has yet to gain scientific consensus.)

That so many tigers live in captivity—only to be later sold as rugs or wine—puts more pressure on those that remain in the wild. In Chinese culture, wildlife products that come from the wild as opposed to the farm are more potent and more valued. “They want the champagne version,” Mills said.

RELATED: Only 3,200 Tigers Remain in the Wild; This Map Shows Where

Meanwhile, other dangers are growing. “Poaching of tigers, poaching of tiger prey, and habitat loss are the three dominant threats to wild tigers across Asia,” said Aili Kang, executive director for Asia programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The three threats vary depending on where the tigers live, but habitat loss, she said, “is the threat that is usually the most devastating, because recovering tiger habitat once it has been converted to human uses is immensely difficult.”

Can any of this be turned around? The countries within the tigers’ range came together recently to pledge to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, a program called Tx2.

There have been some successes. India recently announced that its tiger population has grown by as much as a third, although many scientists question the statistical method used to calculate the estimate. The population of Siberian tigers in one region of China has doubled to 20. “That’s still not a viable population,” said Mills.

Kang said achieving the Tx2 goals—whether they occur by 2022 or later—will require a lot of hard work. “This potential tiger population increase is completely dependent on protected areas living up to their name and being places where tigers are truly protected from the threats of poaching, loss of prey, and loss of habitat,” she said. “This can only be achieved through a strong commitment from Asia’s governments to their protected areas, with technical support from the NGO community.”

Protecting tigers outside official reserves will also be critical. Kang said that tigers will need to be free to move from one protected area to another to maintain their genetic health. “Given that these lands outside protected areas have varying degrees of legal human activities occurring on them, it will be necessary to ensure there are proven human-tiger conflict mitigation measures in place that can prevent conflict before it happens,” she said.

Mills said her biggest fear is the pressure within China to legalize more tiger products, a move that would benefit the wealthy owners of tiger farms but devastate wild populations. Any increase in legal trade, she said, would increase demand for wild tigers. “In three years poachers took more than 100,000 elephants to satisfy the demand from limited legal trade in China,” she said. “How long would it take for poachers to completely wipe out the last 3,000 tigers?”