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Artwork by Cole Stirling
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Threats to Tigers

Today, there are as few as 3,800 tigers remaining in the wild. That represents a devastating population decrease of 96% in just the last century.

The illegal trade in tigers and tiger parts, made worse by captive breeding facilities across Asia and South Africa, alongside threats from habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, has pushed this iconic species to the brink of extinction.

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Craig Jones
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation
Craig Jones

Why are tigers endangered?

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Illegal Trade in Tiger Parts

The illegal wildlife trade is a $23 billion-dollar industry threatening the survival of species around the world. The consumer demand for tiger products, predominantly from Asian markets, drives poaching of wild tigers.

To satisfy growing demand for tiger products, which wild populations can’t sustain – legal tiger breeding farms have been established and integrated into the supply chain. This practice compounds the problem by validating the demand and market for these products in the countries where they’re made available and can only the put species at further risk.

When wildlife products are used as a status symbol or for fictional medicinal purposes, any legal market ensures black markets tragically flourish to satisfy out of control demand.

What are tiger parts used for?

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

The consumptive demand for tigers, their parts, and derivatives comes in a variety of forms; from tiger bone wine and tiger penis soup to the purchasing of whole tiger skeletons to crush the bone down into a supposedly curative powder. The claimed medicinal qualities of all such products have been discredited and disproved by scientists and medical practitioners around the world. 

Used often to show status and impress guests or associates, tiger products are seen in many Far Eastern societies as a premium product, which further perpetuates the demand by adding an inflated price tag and value to them.

For hundreds of years, tiger parts and products have been used in traditional Asian medicines, in the belief they cure disease and replenish the body’s essential energy. The use of tiger parts for medicinal purposes has long been ingrained in these cultures and customs. Demand for luxury items, seen as a sign of wealth and as a status symbol, has also spiked and their skins are often turned into rugs which fetch high prices with consumers.

Do captive breeding farms reduce poaching of wild tigers?

Despite heavy criticism from conservationists, it was hoped – naively, that the creation of captive breeding farms would reduce poaching pressures on wild tigers. 

By creating a managed and harvested resource to satisfy consumer demand, the justification was that there would be no further impact on wild tiger populations.

The devastating reality is that captive breeding farms have not only failed to reduce the killing of wild tigers but have instead increased poaching rates and further fuelled consumer demand for tiger products.

Wild tigers are seen as purer and more powerful and, due to the high costs of breeding farms, wild tigers are cheaper on the black market for purchase, despite being sold on to consumers for a higher price.

Artwork by David Shepherd
David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

The problem with legal markets

Unfortunately, legal markets stemming from tiger farms or within governments, make differentiating the source of tiger parts impossible, and provide a perfect guise for illegally obtained parts to be laundered into the legal market.

If the trade of tiger parts was made universally illegal, the issue would fall into the hands of law enforcement agencies.

The current uncontrolled and poorly regulated legal market is a complex social, political, and economic challenge to fix.

Take a look at David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s position against the tiger trade in our Tiger Trade Statement.

Tiger Trade: What is Legal (And What is Illegal)

The legalities of tiger trade are intermittent at best. Although world governments have voiced concern, the tiger trade from captive breeding facilities remains legal in China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and even South Africa.

Since 2010, tigers have become extinct in both Laos and Vietnam (as well as Cambodia), demonstrating that tiger farming has not reduced pressures on wild populations, and instead, has driven them to extinction in the very countries operating these policies.

From 1990 to 1993, Chinese consumer demand for tiger bone led to a rapid increase in poaching in India and Nepal. As a result, China banned the domestic trade of tiger bone in 1994.  However, in 2004, a note from the Chinese State Forestry Commission allowed a tiger farm to sell ‘bone strengthening wine’, contradicting China’s ban.

Later that year, world governments agreed to phase out tiger farms due to their negative impact on wild tiger populations. However, China’s State Forestry Administration enabled the trade of tiger skins and bones from captive breeding facilities to continue.

From 2012-2019, the DSWF-supported organisation Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), revealed the commercial trade of tiger skins in China, which were being sold without authorisation from the State Forestry Administration.

The commercial trade in tiger parts is still legal across many Asian countries, which can only hasten further instances of local, or even total species extinction. Ironically and tragically, it is estimated by the EIA that over 8,000 tigers are still kept in tiger farms across China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and South Africa – more than twice the number that now remain in the wild.

Other Major Threats to Tigers:

Habitat Loss

Since 1950, the world’s population has tripled, and agricultural and settlement expansion is rising at an unsustainable rate.

This rapid expansion has drastically reduced tiger habitats and, according to the IUCN’s Red List, habitat loss is now the main threat to 85% of all species.

Around half the world’s original forests have now disappeared and without a sufficient plan in place to minimise the loss of tiger habitats, it is more than likely that we will see the loss of this iconic species within our lifetime.

Climate Change

Climate change is a very real environmental problem with the scale and scope to affect various ecosystems causing famine, reductions in prey species, access to water, changes in migratory patterns and increases in human wildlife conflict. Climate change poses one of the largest threats to tiger populations in the 21st Century and, if left unchecked, could have serious implications to the survival of this iconic species.

In Thailand where we work to protect tigers, the impacts of climate change, including sustained drier and hotter periods, have led to a significant increase in the frequency and severity of forest fires.  The fires are destroying the forest structure so all that remains are invasive grasses, palms and bamboo. These do not provide a deep root system required for water retention and consequently flash floods have become an issue, along with drought during the dry season.

Human-wildlife conflict

The growth of human populations and land use has inevitably forced humans and tigers into closer proximity, competing for shrinking habitats.

Tigers have fewer prey available and are forced to kill livestock to survive, resulting in retaliatory killings from farmers and communities.

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