Plight of the Tiger


By Brian K. Weirum

[Written in 1995 and sadly still relevant today]


            The tiger is on the verge of extinction and international awareness and concern must be mobilized. The hard work, optimism, and complacency generated by two decades of effort to save the tiger in South Asia- must now be urgently re-examined. The great wildlife reserves of India and Nepal, are becoming, in effect, shopping malls to satisfy a market based on ancient Chinese medicinal customs and practices. Tiger bones are the main target, but other body parts and other animals, such as the rhino, leopard and bear- are also affected.


            The Royal Bengal tiger, found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Western Burma, is now being vigorously hunted because the indigenous tigers closest to the ‘market’ countries are too scarce for the demand. Dr. Charles McDougal, resident tiger expert in Nepal, reports a l993 survey of one tiger population which showed 40% losses between l989-l992. "Tigers are being killed faster than they can be replaced," concluded McDougal.


            Tiger bones have been found at the airport in New Delhi; tiger cubs have been found smuggled into Bangkok enroute to Taiwan; bags of tiger bones have been found at remote post offices in the Humla District of Nepal near the Tibetan border; incidents of bartering of tiger bones for Tibetan Antelope (shahtoosh) have led to arrests in the Tibetan town of Taklakot; and in 1995 live leopards were found in a warehouse in Kathmandu destined for Tibet and on to China for captive breeding purposes. Nepal clearly sits on the smuggling path to extinction.


            The years between l988 and l992 saw a slaughter of tigers in the forests and jungles of Asia so dramatic that their extinction is now a possibility. The tiger experts of the world suddenly shook their collective heads and asked.."Where have all the tigers gone?" Peter Jackson, Chairman of the CAT Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) writes.."My belief is that the end of the tiger is in sight, possibly within ten

years." [thankfully this has proven not to be true]


                A paper entitled “Chinese Tiger Bone Medicine” presented in l992 at a 'status of the tiger' conference in India by Lui Xin Chen concluded that "animal products have been central to Chinese medical systems for thousands of years. Belief in the efficacy of animal based drugs is so deeply ingrained that it appears very difficult to eradicate, certainly within the time span available for saving the tiger, bear, or other targeted animals. Because of its position in the culture and its treatment effects, it would be unacceptable to the Chinese people to give up tiger bone medicine."


            Unacceptable? Perhaps it is time to dispel some of the myths of the efficacy of animal based medicines and identify acceptable alternatives before it is too late for the tiger. If one accepts the argument that beliefs, customs, and practices cannot be changed merely because they are based on hundreds of years of tradition- then the elephant and rhino would already be gone. When the world stood up and said NO to the extinction of the whale, nations whose economies and cultures were linked to the whaling industry were forced to take heed. Perhaps it is time for the international community to do the same for the tiger!


                Tiger Bone Wine is thought by millions of people to be an elixir of life. To ingest the tiger is to gain its power and strength. According to Lui Xin Chen’s paper, there were 24 companies exporting tiger bone medicine from China in 1992. TRAFFIC Japan reports that South Korea imported 1700 kg. of tiger bones between l985 and l990. TRAFFIC International reported that Taiwan, in the l980's, imported up to 2000 kg. a year to run a brewery bottling 100,000 bottles of Tiger Bone Wine! Taiwan has never had a tiger indigenous to its island. Vietnam remains today a smuggling market mecca for endangered species. All above examples are clearly in violation of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). Products from tiger bones are not limited to wines and tonics but are also marketed as powders, ointments, plasters and pills.   [see Fall 2006 story in CAT News about the Guilin Xiong Sen Tiger and Bear Farm].


                Ancient beliefs and customs threatening the tiger are not limited to bones. Tiger penis soup is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Eyeballs rolled into pills are thought to cure convulsions. Whiskers are thought to be a protection against bullets. The tail mixed with soup is believed to cure skin disease. The hair when burnt drives away centipedes. Sitting on a tiger skin can prevent fevers caused by evil spirits. Claws worn as jewelry are said to give courage and protection against sudden fright. And ribs should be worn at all times as a good luck talisman.


                There are many long range problems facing the tiger and other endangered species- economic development, population pressure, dwindling prey species, loss of habitat, and the lack of political will of tiger habitat countries. The most immediate threat to the tiger, however, is poaching to satisfy the market for traditional Chinese medicinal products and a renewed demand for skins in the Tibetan market.


                No animal has been graced with a greater aura of power and majesty, both in myth and reality, than the tiger. Ironically it is this prodigious mantle of respect that is threatening to lead it down an inexorable path to extinction. With no proven medicinal value, the strong belief in the efficacy of tiger medicines may soon lead to the disappearance, forever, of this magnificent animal from the forests and jungles of Asia.