It was a sobering Wednesday evening at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCT) in Bangkok, where an expert panel gathered to discuss 'The Plight of the Tiger – Commodification of a Giant' in Thailand, on June 19th 2019. The panel comprised of Tim Redford from Freeland, Edwin Weik from Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), Somsak Sonnthornnawaphat from World Animal Protection (WAP) and Christopher Perkins from the UK Border Agency.
Tim discussed the tragic demise of tigers in Asia. Maps from only 5 years ago in 2014 showed areas where tigers were still living in the wild. Fast forward to today and the same map makes for shocking viewing. Tiger numbers are dwindling, primarily caused by poachers hunting tiger body parts to sell to a predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese market. Poachers set snares in the forests and jungles, indiscriminately catching wild animals and causing misery and suffering to a multitude of animals. Furthermore, the rangers who patrol national parks and forest reserves are sometimes injured or killed by poachers, with a frightening number of 150 rangers murdered by poachers every year (which equates to 3 people a week). However, without rangers patrolling tiger habitat, tiger losses may be even higher, so Freeland are actively involved in training rangers.
A further factor in the decline of wild tiger populations is the increasing encroachment of highways and railways, fragmenting habitats and reducing ranges. As a consequence of human encroachment on tiger territory, tigers have been suffering from Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), a fatal disease that is spread by infected dogs, usually through contact with contaminated faeces. This disease is a serious threat to wild tiger populations, which can devastate populations, as was the case in the Serengeti where 30% of lions were wiped out in a CDV outbreak.
Edwin focused his discussion on the Thai law and the issue of captive bred tigers. Firstly, he discussed the impact that the new law that was passed on May 22nd, 2019, may have on tiger poaching. Previously, poachers and illegal wildlife traders faced very few consequences for their crimes. However, with the new law, offenders may be imprisoned for a minimum of 3 years and could be fined in the region of 2 million Thai Baht for killing a tiger. There are hopes that this stronger law will act as a deterrent to poachers, offering better protection to wild tigers and other wildlife.
A serious threat to tiger populations is the existence of tiger farms. These facilities operate under the guise of a zoo, even having a zoo permit, but are actually farms that commercially breed tigers for the tiger trade. The number of captive held tigers in Thailand is around 2000, that live in both tiger farms and facilities, such as Si Racha Tiger Zoo. This “zoo” has two purposes: Firstly, it receives thousands of tourists very day in a well marketed and co-ordinated business that caters to Chinese, Russian and Indian tourists. These tourists are offered multiple types of interactions with the tigers, ranging from feeding tiger cubs and tiger selfie through to a tiger show. Secondly, it is highly likely that tigers are being traded. According to the For Tiger annual inspection of tiger facilities in Thailand, this year there are around 300 tigers in this facility alone.
The number of tiger farms has increased drastically over the last ten years. Many of these farms have moved close to the Thai-Laos border to facilitate the ease of trade between the two countries. The close proximity to the border reduces the risk of traders being caught and is the first step in the supply route for the onward journey to consumers. Edwin made an interesting observation: Thailand has very few tigers remaining in the wild and a high number of tiger farms whereas India has approximately 2200 tigers in the wild and ZERO tiger farms. This highlights the importance of government commitment and role in tiger conservation by not permitting tiger farms as their presence in a country endangers the tigers in the wild. Wildlife traders often still prefer to poach a wild tiger as it is cheaper than purchasing a farmed tiger and the consumer will pay more for a wild-born animal.
In addition to tigers and tiger parts being moved over country borders, the tiger business has now a new niche that takes advantage of the 8 million or so Chinese tourists that visit Thailand every year. Tiger bones are being sold as supplements to tourists, who visit one such retail venue, where buses upon buses arrive daily carrying between 1000-2000 people. The tourists are told that they can take these tiger bone supplements back to their home country and that it was “only a little bit illegal”. In conjunction with this, a new trend has emerged where Thailand is importing lion bones, which are then mixed with the tiger bones for these supplements.
Somsak of the WAP spoke of the work that he is doing leading campaigns into reducing tourist-animal interactions at zoos and animal shows. He discussed the impact on welfare of the captive animals that are forced to interact with tourists and highlighted how animals’ welfare was severely compromised. There is photographic evidence that clearly shows how most animals kept in these sub-standard zoos do not have their five freedoms met. The five freedoms are a welfare assessment tool that assesses:
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury and disease
Freedom from fear and distress
Freedom to exhibit natural behaviour
Worryingly, many facilities do not even provide fresh and clean water for their animals. Tigers are often kept in very small enclosures or cages, receive little or no medical attention and have no opportunity to perform natural behaviours.
The presentation from Christopher Perkins of the UK Border Agency showed how countries outside of the region were also actively working to help reduce the wildlife trade. The UK Border Agency works in collaboration with other agencies for intelligence and investigation, such as National Wildlife and Crime units. Co-operation with domestic police forces and customs are essential in helping to catch snuggling of illegal wildlife. The UK Border Agency helps train police and customs to detect and recognise illegal specimens. Christopher also highlighted the importance of utilising the media in the fight against wildlife crime through publishing details of convicted wildlife criminals.
Overall, this sombre talk highlighted the magnitude of the problem that tigers are now facing both in the wild and in captivity. The conservation and welfare of tigers has never been under such threat and without stronger laws, efficient enforcement, commitment from both NGO’s and the private sector, the future for Thailand’s tigers looks very bleak indeed.