Tiger is the largest feline in the world and unfortunately it belongs among the most endangered animal species. It is a beautiful and charismatic cat that most people admire or fear. However, human interest has led tigers to the brink of extinction, as the dark side of the admiration consists of demand for skins, trophies and products made of tiger bodies. In 1900, more than 100,000 tigers lived in the wild. However, the current population is approximately 3,800 individuals, out of which only around 40% reproduce. Some tiger subspecies have already been wiped out completely, for example Bali tiger, Caspian tiger or Javan tiger…
Tigers have been hunted by people for centuries as they have been considered enemies, competitors or beautiful trophies. They are strong and dangerous animals and their capture gives a human-hunter a certain status and feel of power. Indian maharajas used to hunt thousands of tigers (a maharaja from Rajastan killed 3,000 tigers during his life), however, rich Englishmen in the colonial times did not lag behind (sir Stanford Raffles boasted with killing 36 tigers during one hunt…). In certain times and areas, it was not even killing for entertainment but rather a thoughtful mass slaughter. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia came with a plan of colonization of central Asia including a project on extermination of tigers in the area of the Caspian Sea. In those times, also the Imperial army was engaged in the killing of tigers. In 1959 in communist China, Mao Ce-Tung labelled tigers as enemies of people and led a campaign for their complete extermination. As can be seen, tigers have always experienced rough times and nowadays, their situation is not much better. In the past 100 years, their area has decreased by 95% and even today, they are being poached and killed, although this activity is now illegal.
The demand is key – virtually every part of a tiger can be used and one can make a great profit on it. Unfortunately, a dead tiger might be more “valuable” than a live one. Skins can cost up to 25,000 USD on a black market. They serve as a decoration, symbol of luxury and prestige, or a frequent bribe for soldiers and high officials in Asia. Bones are a valued material in the traditional Chinese medicine (current price 1,000-2,000 USD/kg of bones). Canines and claws are worn as talismans and jewelry thought to bring good luck. Tiger fat is supposed to heal rheumatism, whiskers should relieve from teeth pain, brain heals laziness and acne, claws should serve against insomnia and penis as an aphrodisiac. Trade in tiger penises is very lucrative in Asia. However, it is very interesting that tiger penis is actually very small and therefore big imitations made of deer penises appear on the market.
Popular and frequently trafficked is also a so-called tiger wine (product made on tiger farms in China) – dead tigers are put into an alcohol and left in it for several weeks. The extract is then sold in bottles with tiger emblem for approx. 100 USD/liter.
The biggest consumers of tigers are China and Vietnam. Trade in tigers has been internationally prohibited since 1990. This ban has been in place since 1993 also for the domestic market in China and Vietnam – but it is just a theory. Due to the high demand, there is an extensive illegal trade involving also organized criminal gangs. Highest number of tigers live in India where they are also poached the most. Poachers’ treks, on which flows a contraband of poached tigers, lead from India through mountains of Nepal and Tibet to China. Tigers poached in the area of Indochina are sent to traffickers in Vietnam.
Sadly, to a large extent, also the Czech Republic seems to be involved in the tiger trafficking. It might seem strange that a country in central Europe can have a problem with tigers as they don’t live here in the wild, but in recent years, it is true. The reason is the presence of the strong Vietnamese community in which is a high demand for tiger products. Investigations have revealed that trade in tiger body parts is well organized and lucrative and it takes place in central Europe.
In 2013, customs officers in the Svitavy region stopped a car of a Vietnamese citizen and found inside a complete tiger skeleton hidden in bags with clothes. Later that year, two tiger skeletons being exported from Prague to Hanoi were seized at the Ruzyně Airport in Prague. The bones were raw, still with residual tissues, and were hidden in huge loudspeakers. The tigers were relatively young, however, signs on their bones indicated very bad breeding conditions. The goods were being sent from the Vietnamese marketplace SAPA and identity of the sender was fictive.
Since 2007, around 360 tigers (only 39 in zoos) have lived in captivity in the Czech Republic. Due to the increasing problem, the Czech Environmental Inspectorate has carried out complex controls of all bred tigers. Results were quite surprising – it turned out that many tigers had disappeared, died or had been transported to very suspicious facilities. Average life expectancy of tigers in private breeding facilities in the Czech Republic is 5 years, whereas in the wild or in zoos, they can live for up to 20 years. We have found out that tigers in the Czech Republic die very young. And it is unclear where their bodies disappear. Unfortunately, everything indicates that something very bad is going on with tigers in our country…
Around 3,800 tigers remain in the wild but over 20,000 live in captivity. Surprisingly, only a small fraction of this number are tigers kept in zoos. Unfortunately, to release tigers reared in human care to the wild and thus restore their wild populations usually is not possible. Animals from captivity do not have the right instincts, they do not know how to hunt and are used to humans. We do not even have many possibilities where to release them – in Asia, the human population density has been ever increasing and a tiger needs a vast territory with plenty of natural prey.
Tigers are kept in captivity for various reasons. Let’s leave the zoos, purpose of which is quite obvious. Another type of breeding are circuses and wandering exhibitions where animals are trained and presented for people’s entertainment. Fortunately, nowadays this phenomenon has gone down. Some circus breeding has been switching to production of interbred color forms, such as white tigers, golden tigers or hybrids of a tiger and a lion (liger).
Tigers are bred also by many individuals as somewhat unusual pets – this kind of breeding is typical for Europe and America. Its purpose is to entertain rich people possessing large property, as a breeding of a large cat is not cheap. The big cat gives its owner a status of someone exceptional and it usually serves also as a symbol of wealth and power. Apparently, a tiger cub found by Thai customs officers in the suitcase of a woman traveling by plane from Bangkok was smuggled for the purposes of such a breeding. The tiger was narcotized, his muzzle was tied and it was hidden among stuffed animals in the suitcase.
One example for all – the popular Thai tiger temple Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua in the Kanchanaburi province. Allegedly, the temple keeps rescued tigers that monks lovingly take care of. Tourists can visit the temple and for a high entrance fee, they can photograph themselves with the tigers and cuddle with small cubs. For years, non-governmental organizations have been warning that this is a ruthless commercial attraction and the tigers are not actually rescued. The truth is, the animals are narcotized to let people touch them and to not defend themselves, they are not properly fed, are kept in poor conditions etc. In 2016, a police raid took place in the temple and around 120 tigers were seized and taken away from there. Investigators found out many suspicious things. Among others, they suspected that the temple might have been trafficking tiger products – 40 tiger embryos and dead cubs were found in freezers, bottles with tiger broth were also found etc. The case is still being investigated.
In case of many thousands of tigers, their breeding is commercial – this purpose of breeding is typical for Asia. Over 5,000 tigers in China are bred on farms, often in harsh conditions. Tigers are kept in big groups in concrete enclosures or small cages (such a way of breeding is suffering for tigers as they are solitary and territorial species). After a few days, cubs are taken away from their mothers, so they can soon get pregnant again. Small tiger cubs serve to visitors for cuddling and taking “selfies”. Older animals which the tourists take photos with as well often have their claws removed, or they are sedated by narcotics. Generally, we can say that animals on Asian farms are damaged, both due to the way of breeding and due to the cross-breeding of different tiger subspecies with no regard of genetics. Officially, the farms declare their purpose is education and raising awareness. But how is this education being conducted? What do children from schools and kindergartens learn there? Actually, the real purpose of those farms is not education. The farms produce the so-called tiger wine (dead bodies of tigers are put into an alcohol and left in it for several weeks). The drink is then sold for approx. 100 USD/liter.
Tiger farms owners also lobby the government to open and legalize trade in tiger products, on which they could earn a lot of money. To breed tigers in bulk and sell their bodies for big money on the market. The demand is high, and so are the prices. Some argue that legal stocks could saturate the market and decrease tiger poaching in the wild. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. It would mean renewing the status of tiger as a “consumer” animal and a zero possibility to control or distinguish between legal and illegal goods, respectively. Poached tigers would easily get “laundered” by products from farms. Years of experience have also shown that wealthy people always prefer goods from the wild (natural, with strong effect) to goods produced in artificial conditions on concrete (weaker effect). Therefore, legalization of trade in tiger products from farms would virtually mean end of tigers in the wild.
Not always is it love for animals – in recent years, there has been a new strange entertainment for rich people. At luxurious parties, tigers are killed and then eaten. A case appeared in media where a rich Chinese man was sentenced to 13 years in prison for hosting such a party where 3 tigers were killed by electrocution. Similar case happened in Moscow.
Many safari parks and facilities where people can touch and cuddle animals are based on human love for animals and their fascination with big cats. Few people realize that it is torture and that by visiting and paying entrance fee at such facilities, they themselves contribute to abuse of those animals.
In recent years, tiger canines, claws and bones have been repeatedly found in baggage of Vietnamese citizens traveling from Prague to Hanoi. Both liquid and solid broths obtained by long cooking of tiger bodies also occur. Supposedly, these extracts give their consumer an exceptional strength and resistence.
Cases in the Czech Republic probably involve tigers coming from captivity, not poached in the wild. However, even such a trade is illegal and stimulates further demand for tigers, especially when products are shipped to Asia. The question is the original source of the tiger products in Central Europe and whether these tigers died naturally or were killed.