The Great Indian Tiger Factory

JUST how big is the illegal wildlife trading industry? Interpol says the trade in illegal wildlife products is worth about $12 billion a year. The rhino and the elephant apart, it is the big cat that pays the maximum in blood to keep this industry booming.Although tigers in captivity—about 20,000 in US ranches and another 1,500 in China’s tiger farms—often end up as trade material, the primary source of the trade has been wild tigers. Home to half of the world’s wild tiger stock, India keeps the supplyline alive.

In the international market, a tiger fetches at least $10,000, but broken into body parts, the value can soar to $50,000. Every bit of a tiger is in demand—the brain as cure to pimples and laziness, its whiskers for toothaches, the nose and eyes for epilepsy and malaria, the humerus bone for ulcers, rheumatism and typhoid.

Tiger skin can cost up to $15,000. Tiger bones and body parts cost twice or three times as much as a tiger skin. In Hong Kong black markets, vendors sell powdered tiger humorous bone for over $3600/kg. In Seoul, it sells for $3000/kg. In Taiwan, a pair of eyes cost between $175-250.

Tiger penis is used in a soup as an aphrodisiac—a bowl of the ‘‘first boil’’ comes for nothing less than $100 while subsequent boils cost less. In Taiwan, a ‘‘rich’’ bowl of tiger penis soup goes for a hefty $320. Finally, after about five to six boils, the penis is dried up and sold for anything between $200-500. In the late 1990s, a Japanese manufacturer was producing a brand of Tiger penis pills which were on sale for over $27,000 per bottle.

China is the biggest producer of tiger bone pills and medicinal wine, but such medicines are also made in factories in South Korea and other South-East Asian countries. Dealer price for raw tiger bone is estimated to be between $140 and $370/kg, depending on the size and quality of the bones. Till recently, the retail price of processed and powdered tiger bone in Singapore was over $4,000/kg.

USING tiger parts for medicinal purposes is not limited to Asia. WWF investigation in England of Chinese chemists, craft shops and supermarkets in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool showed that a number of shops sold products claiming to contain tiger derivatives. It’s prevalent in many US states, particularly in Texas, primarily among the Chinese expats.

Tigers are also valued as exotic pets. In 1998, WWF found two tiger cubs on open sale at a pet shop in Jakarta.

Given such demand, it’s little wonder that tigers are facing the worst ever crisis in India. In 10 years between 1994 and 2003, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has recorded 684 cases of tiger poaching here. This excludes, due to insufficient poaching evidence, a large number of tigers that were ‘‘found dead’’.

In the last two years, skin seizures in India, Nepal and China indicate that another 221 tigers were poached. The Customs authorities multiply known offences by ten to estimate the size of an illegal trade. So even a very conservative estimate would suggest that the tiger and leopard trade in the subcontinent deals with at least 1,000 big cats a year.

Following strong legislation in different countries, the international tiger trade has been operating almost exclusively through ‘‘an army of ants’’— large numbers of individuals smuggling small volumes of goods through a range of channels.

‘‘It is a thriving, uncontrolled market, which may explain the increased poaching of tigers in India that has left at least one tiger reserve devoid of tigers and four others almost empty. Huge seizures of tiger, leopard and otter skins in India and Nepal indicate the existence of highly organised criminal networks behind the skin trade. They operate across borders, smuggling skins from India through Nepal into China, and continue to evade the law,’’ says Belinda Wright, executive director, WPSI.

The modus operandi has been simple. One of the country dealers (see box) plant operators with a budget of about Rs 1 lakh in a village in or around a tiger forest. He spends months there, familiarising himself and winning the confidence of the community and eventually luring a few villagers to poach a big cat for as little as Rs 15-25,000. Once the kill is made, the skin is sent to local tanaries—the ones in Kanpur and Allahabad have special expertise—and finally it reaches the kingpin. It’s difficult to transport other body parts which are often dispatched separately.

Once the kingpin has a good stock, consignments are sent across the porous border to Nepal, Tibet or Bangladesh. At this level, the country dealer earns between Rs 1,50,000 to Rs 2,00,000 depending on the size and quality of the skin. Bones, about 12 kg per tiger, fetches another

Rs 50,000 to Rs 75,000. The foreign dealer, in turn, earns at least $10,000 per tiger product from the retailers. And then the products hit the retail market, spinning mega bucks.

THE findings of the recent joint investigation by London’s Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) and WPSI in Tibet and China points out that the supply line from India is very much active. ‘‘In the last five years, the international community has seen the trade in tiger and leopard skins spiral out of control. If this trade continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger. It is imperative that the Indian and Chinese governments stop this trade now, before time runs out,’’ says Debbie Banks, EIA’s senior campaigner.

The Tiger Task Force report talks about a bunch of radical long term measures. But India won’t have too many tigers left to be benefitted by those steps if we don’t act now. The Centre must address the issue at both ends. While bilateral talks with our neighbours and better vigilance at the border are necessary to curb the trade, immediate action is necessary to protect the tiger in its habitat against poaching.

‘‘We trust the Prime Minister. He must realise that we are losing tigers everyday. If need be, he has to deploy the paramilitary, even the Army, in our reserves to save the national animal,’’ urges P K Sen, chief of WWF-India’s wildlife programme.

Till then, the countdown to the extinction of the Panthera tigris continues. Sansar ChandThe face of Indian poaching. The alleged mastermind behind north India’s poaching network. Now in jail.

Pema ThinleyOf Tibetan origin, he was arrested during a raid in 1993 and admitted to procuring skins for Sansar Chand.

Mohammed YakubAn associate of Sansar Chand. He is a co-accused in the Pema Thinley case and also accused in the Satna case against Shabbir Ali. He is known to control a network of poachers, who kill leopards inside Ranthambhore, Corbett and Bandhavgarh National Parks.

Tsering Atup TamangEthnically Tibetan and a Nepalese citizen, a resident of Humla, near the Chinese border. He is an accused in two major cases in UP. His telephone diary contained the phone numbers of Sansar Chand and other traders. His name has also come up in several wildlife cases of Nepal.

Shabbir Ali/ Shabbir Ahmed KhanA resident of Satna, Madhya Pradesh, he was arrested in 1997 with 11 leopard skins. In 1994, he showed an undercover investigator 11 sacks of tiger bones. During interrogation, he revealed links to a second rung of traders, who had sold him 40 to 100 leopard skins over the years.

Shabbir Hassan KureshiShabbir was arrested in the Khaga case in January 2000. This was one of the biggest seizures in recent times. It included 70 leopard skins, 18,000 leopard claws, 4 tiger skins, 132 tiger claws and 221 black buck skins.

Wong Kim QueeHe is the main accused in a Siliguri case where two rhino horns were seized during a raid. Quee stockpiled his goods in Bhutan. He was apparently the man who allegedly supplied 22 rhino horns to the Princess of Bhutan (the king’s sister).

PremanHe is one of the most prominent ivory carvers based in Thiruvananthapuram, and is believed to source his ivory from poachers. His ivory statues are sold to buyers in Kolkata and Mumbai.