National Geographic photographer Steve Winter spent a decade in search of wild tigers. It began with a story that sent him deep into Myanmar’s jungles in 2003, but eventually brought him to Sumatra, Thailand, and India. In 2007, environmental journalist Sharon Guynup was working on a story about wildlife poaching in India’s Kaziranga National Park when she glimpsed her first tiger, and began writing regularly about big cats. They felt the need to speak louder for this seriously endangered cat, and collaborated on Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, their new book just out from National Geographic Books. Writing in his voice, Guynup details Winter’s quest to capture the tiger’s magesty. She explores why these cats have been both feared and revered throughout human history, details the threats that face them as they try to survive amidst an exploding human population — and outlines bold initiatives to save them. In the final words of Tigers Forever, she writes: “Only 3,200 [wild] tigers remain, scattered in pockets across Asia. That’s a shockingly low number. The time to act is now. Once the last tigers disappear, no longer gliding on velvet paws through the jungle, we cannot bring them back.” The following is an excerpt from the new book:
It wasn’t until I returned [to Myanmar] in February 2003 that I realized the [newly-reopened] Ledo Road had also brought in smugglers who were illegally trading in endangered wildlife. My first inkling came when I landed in Myitkyina. While gathering provisions to bring into the interior, I found street vendors everywhere selling traditional medicine: both plants and various animal parts, dried or floating in liquid. When I passed through in November, I’d seen just one small display with far fewer items. Now tables overflowed with skulls, horns, bird bills, unknown powders portioned into glassine, scraps of skin, insects, unrecognizable animal parts—and packets containing quarter-inch pieces of tiger bone. I headed into the valley wondering what I’d find.
Tanai, the gateway to the valley, now pulsed with humanity. People poured in, trying to grab whatever they could before seasonal monsoon floodwaters inundated the landscape. I heard stories of trails littered with metal snares and steel-jawed tiger traps, of trip-wire traps that shot poison arrows — and of a small army of men armed with flintlock black powder rifles. They were no ordinary hunters.
I met two of them while camping on the Tarung River during another unsuccessful attempt to photograph wildlife. They were escaped convicts with prison tattoos on their forearms who had just killed a bear. They’d aimed badly and shot it through the stomach, damaging the valuable gallbladder: Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The only parts they’d be able to sell were the paws, netting maybe $2 each. It was an $8 bear.
These men were just a tiny part of a huge pipeline shipping wildlife to East Asia, particularly to China. Animals were vanishing across the region and the world into an illegal trade run by international crime syndicates. The Hukawng Valley had become an easy source. The appetite for animal parts used in traditional medicine has skyrocketed in tandem with China’s expanding industrialization. This insatiable demand is primarily fueled by newfound wealth among some of its 1.3 billion residents, with some use in Vietnam, other Asian countries, and in cities across the globe with Asian populations, including the United States. China became a huge importer of tiger products; from 1990 to 1992 it exported 27 million items containing tiger to 26 counties and territories, according to data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
It’s been a deadly combination. Ingredients include a wide range of plants, minerals — and parts from more than 1,500 animals, including endangered species. Many are used in the same ancient remedies that have been prescribed for nearly 4,000 years, concoctions compiled in Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu (The Great Herbal) in 1596 during the Ming dynasty. Demand for the most highly prized items, including rhino horn, pangolin scales, and tiger parts, has nearly hunted these creatures off the planet.
For millennia, medicine men across Asia have ascribed magical powers and healing properties to the tiger, and, somehow, the cat became a universal apothecary. Nearly every part, from nose to tail—eyes, whiskers, brains, flesh, blood, genitals, organs —is used to treat a lengthy list of maladies. Tiger parts are believed to heal the liver and kidneys and are used to treat epilepsy, baldness, inflammation, possession by evil demons, toothaches, malaria, hydrophobia, skin diseases, nightmares, laziness, fevers, and headaches.
The bones are considered powerful medicine. Newborn babies are bathed in bone broth so they will grow up disease-free. There is a growing, demand for tiger bone wine, a tonic made by soaking a tiger carcass in rice wine. It is thought to cure arthritis and muscle pain, to stimulate blood flow and qi (the life force the Chinese believe inherent in all things), and to impart the animal’s great strength. Since 1994, a few Chinese practitioners have repudiated the efficacy of tiger remedies, with little result.
It wasn’t until three decades ago that scientists realized that TCM was responsible for a precipitous decline in tiger numbers. As tiger populations in China plummeted, professional poachers fanned out, snaring, trapping, and shooting their way across Asia, targeting locations where corruption was rife, enforcement weak — and where there were few other economic opportunities. Poachers hired local tribal people to hunt the cats or act as guides. Then they ran prized parts over borders to Chinese TCM manufacturers.
Tigers were classified as globally endangered in 1986. The next year, an international treaty banned cross-border trade in tiger parts, driving the market underground. China banned domestic tiger bone trade in 1993, though shadowy networks remain. Although tiger hunting is illegal everywhere, the killing has accelerated. Prices for tigers, dead or alive, continue to soar as populations collapse. Poaching for TCM (and to a lesser degree, for their skins) has become a primary threat to their survival.
INTERPOL agents informed Congress in 2008 that the same sophisticated underworld crime networks that run illicit gun, drug, and human trafficking operations also mastermind the wildlife trade. With high profits and low risks, it has become one of the fastest growing and most profitable types of international organized crime, growing into an estimated $20 billion a year business that helps purchase weapons, fund civil wars, and finance terrorist activities. Still, most governments view wildlife crime as an “environmental” issue, keeping it low on the priority list.
Police and customs agents do make arrests and seizures, but penalties are light and few poachers or smugglers see jail time. In 2010, INTERPOL launched an Environmental Crime Program to coordinate transnational investigations and police actions, including a “Project Predator” program focused on tigers. Achim Steiner, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme, called for a global crackdown in 2013. Whether these actions effectively bust up smuggling networks remains to be seen.
Adapted and republished with permission from the book Tigers Forever by Steve Winter and Sharon Gunyup. Copyright ©2013 Steve Winter and Panthera. All rights reserved.