*I originally wrote this for a local Salt Lake magazine, but I guess I overestimated its concern for things happening on the other side of the world. Someone should tell them the butterfly effect is a thing. ~JM
Most of us forget that only a century ago, more than 100,000 tigers freely roamed our planet’s forests. Desensitized as we are to wars, calamities, species extinction and ecological destruction, the modern scarcity of tigers presents itself as a typical statistic, another cost of human expansion.Today less than 4,000 tigers are estimated to live in the wild, and it takes an international scandal for anyone to notice.
You may have heard about the famed tiger temple in the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand, a fanciful place where Buddhist monks and full-grown tigers live side-by-side and take selfies with expats, tourists and celebrities like Beyonce. Recent events, however, have caused it to be crossed off the bucket lists for all the wrong reasons.
On May 30th, wildlife authorities conducted a raid at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua and found ample evidence of wildlife trafficking, including the bodies of 37 tiger cubs stored in a freezer. Just days before, Thai police intercepted monks departing from the temple in a truck, found to be carrying a poacher’s fortune in skins and a suitcase of sharp teeth. The monastery also contained a makeshift laboratory evidently used to make medicine from animal bones.
Perhaps it isn’t all that surprising—conservationists have for a long time publicly questioned the motives of the temple, alleging that its self-promotion as a ’sanctuary’ was dishonest, that its feel-good entry fee of $20 to coddle a captured king-of-the-jungle was only a front to conceal more, ahem, untoward operations. What is surprising, however, is the vast and predatory underworld the tiger temple coverup has once again evinced for all to see.
The black-market for wildlife trafficking in Asia has long been driven by the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine. In this context, the tiger is a walking antidote to just about any ailment imaginable, including malaria, meningitis and male impotence (for which you can buy a steaming bowl of tiger penis soup). Even the calcium in tiger bones is thought to have anti-inflammatory powers, making them a coveted cure-all.
Shops can be seen boldly selling tiger wine, pills, and balms not only in China, but in places like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—despite the practice being nominally illegal. The Asian tiger trade, though menacingly consistent throughout the last century, has in recent years taken on a cosmopolitan guise due to an expansion of the Chinese middle-class and its renewed interest in traditional values. Today, the animal trafficking business is currently valued at 20 billion a year, making it the fourth largest illicit trade in the world.
According to a document released online by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the majority of tiger parts flowing north from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos are captive-sourced. This means that networks of breeding facilities across Southeast Asia make significant contributions to the tiger trade, and like the temple in Kanchanaburi, these farms often pose as conservation centers. The EIA does not hesitate in asserting that major crime syndicates lurk behind the scenes, even citing the tiger skins that Chinese political elite receive as ‘non-financial bribes’ from offenders.
The numbers from recent years are both appalling and depressing. TRAFFIC, a global wildlife monitoring network, has said that from 2000 to 2014, an average of two tigers were taken down every week, and that’s a minimum estimate. In 2010, countries convened in St. Petersburg for the ‘Tiger Summit’ and resolved to double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022. Since 2010, however, TRAFFIC has admitted that tiger-poaching has reached “critical levels”, and many openly question whether there are even 2,000 left in the wild.
Wild tigers, clearly, are the equivalent of sand in the top-half of an hourglass. We’ve already witnessed the extinction of the Caspian tiger, the Bali tiger and the Javan tiger, and the South China tiger hasn’t been spotted in 20 years. That leaves us with five subspecies hanging on ‘by a tail’, with the mighty Sumatran tiger looking more like it will go the way of its Indonesian counterparts sooner than later. By 2020, the only tigers left in the world will likely be the ones grown for harvest, valued merely for the $30,000 their skins fetch on the street.
If you’re wondering how we got to this point, it’s worth noting that the 20th century was as bad for tigers as it was for human rights. Forests were encroached upon by land development projects, American and British trophy-hunters mowed tigers down in droves during World War II, and the Russian government even carried out an extermination program in the years following the war. The shortcomings of anti-poaching initiatives along with weak judicial punishments have since only hastened the tiger’s demise.
Perhaps we mistook this creature’s sylvan omniscience for immortality, its lofty place in myth for the station of a god. Certainly, the tiger was seen as a kind of deity by indigenous communities across Asia for hundreds of years, an elemental force whose woodland dominion went unquestioned. Somewhere along the way, however, this age-old reverence was lost; man decided he’d rather claim the tiger’s stripes for himself as a final symbol of his costly eco-conquest–one that might swallow him up in the end as well.
Among the litany of world problems, the endangered status of tigers unfortunately ranks rather low. His fate is bundled with that of other species, ecosystems and human communities. Nevertheless, one can’t help but guess that mankind will be chastened by the finality of the tiger’s eventual extinction and, further, that with his passing into the night of nonexistence we’ll have lost something essential to what our world is in the process.
Whatever that “something” is, it won’t ever be replaced by things we can hang on a wall or take for indigestion. Maybe the scandal at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua will be enough to wake us up to the crisis at hand…you know, the one that threatens to eliminate our most storied animal from the planet forever. If we don’t act soon, our stories of tigers will be all that is left of them.