The Shocking Scale Of The Asian Big Cat Trade

First of all I’d like to thank Josh from the Jaguar and it’s allies for reminding me of the devastating impact the illegal wildlife trade is having on big cats in his latest blog post.

As depressing as the facts may be, the illegal wildlife trade is big business. Despite it’s notoriously potent nature, exact figures regarding it’s net worth are understandably difficult to obtain however it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that it runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. 23 metric tons of ivory were seized in 2011, amounting to some 2500 elephants, and between 2001 and 2010, a total of 493 big cat parts were observed at markets in Burma and Thailand. The figures are astonishing, almost difficult to comprehend and the products for sale fail to just stop at parts of big cats previously killed, for live tigers, clouded leopards, snow leopards and lions were also observed at those very same markets.

The profit margins on big cats are thought to be very large, and despite legal protection in almost all of Asia, the illegal trade in big cats is thriving. The latest figures obtained by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggest that for every one tiger killed or taken for profit, six leopards are also lost, again putting into context the sheer scale of the issue which exists as one of the biggest threats facing big cats in South East Asia.

I’m writing this post not only because I feel very strongly about big cats and conservation, but also to try and draw attention to the sheer numbers of big cats involved in the black economy of Asia. I must admit, the numbers involved have somewhat shocked me, and I hope they instill a sense of shock in you too. Only by drawing increased awareness and attention to the illegal trade of big cats will the voices of conservationists and “naturephiles” like you and I be able to exert an influence on the policy makers whose decisions affect the future of big cats. Although the illegal trade in big cats may never be fully halted, upon reading of the following figures it seems sufficient enough progress is yet to be made.

Between 2000 and 2012

  • At least 4000 big cat skins entered the Asian market, with the vast majority headed for China
  • Of those 4000, 85% of those were leopard skins

And between 2005 and 2012,

  • At least 251 snow leopard skins were seized across China and it’s range

And those figures are obtained from just one report made by the EIA in 2012. A study into the illegal trade of big cats in Burma makes for further alarming reading.

Between 2000 and 2010

  • A minimum of 91 tigers, and 149 clouded leopards were traded
  • Whole skins were the most commonly traded item, accounting for 50% of traded parts

And throughout Asia between 2000 and 2010

  • Between 1069 and 1220 tigers were killed for trade
  • Helping tiger populations fall from 100,000 to just 3500 in 100 years
illegal wildlife trade
Snow leopard skins are subject to an increasing demand. With body parts being found in markets as far away as the Burma/China border

The more I read these incredible numbers, the more shocked I become. With tiger populations less than 4% of what they used to be at the start of the last century, its becoming ever more apparent that if the current levels of illegal trading continue, populations of big cats in Asia will be decimated to even levels we can’t yet comprehend. The movement of illegal parts from Burma into China is fast becoming one of the most worrying trends, with Mong La, a Burmese/Chinese border town seeing a tripling in the amount of shops selling big cat skins and body parts.

Despite strict legislation in both Burma and Thailand, a report into the status of big cat trade in the two countries has highlighted that enforcement of these, especially in border regions is minimal, and in Burma where the political situation is unique, wildlife trade is conducted in non-government controlled territory, a factor which brings its own set of dangers. The demand for traditional medicines in China is high, and the lack of a similar level of law enforcement in China has been suggested as contributing to Burma’s rise as a centre of wildlife trade. The WWF reported in December 2014 that although many big cat body parts are illegally transported to China, some even by “official” modes of transportation, the Burmese town of Mong La experiences a high volume of, I’ll call them “illegal tourists” travelling to Burma to sample consumables such as tiger meat, and tiger bone wine.

Illegal wildlife trade
Mong La is fast becoming a global hot sport for illegal wildlife trading.

I fear that although legislation in neighbouring Asian countries is made with the greatest will and intention, until satisfactory legislation in China is drawn up the demand for big cat skins and body parts from the world’s largest population will continue to outstrip the best efforts of governments and conservationists when it comes to halting the illegal trade of big cats. Although stricter controls on tiger poaching and trade have had an effect, there are a vast number of reports which suggest the demand has simply shifted to leopards, a conclusion which fits with the now falling leopard populations in some regions of South East Asia.

I’m not sure if enjoy is the right world to use when hoping what reaction I would like you to have after reading this post. Whilst thinking and writing about the illegal killing of animals we care so much about is never an easy or pleasant topic, I think an awareness of the biggest threats animals, not just big cats face is essential in understanding their quest for survival. So I guess I hope that if you were aware of the sheer scale of illegal wildlife trade before reading this post, or even if you weren’t, reading or re familiarising yourself with the enormous quantity of big cats being killed, purely for human “consumption” year upon year triggers a pensive mood, and maybe if we can shout loud enough, the governments of countries such as China will stand up and recognise the dramatic impact their lack of conservation policy is having on our beloved natural world.

* If you would like a copy of the reporting regarding the status of the illegal big cat trade in Burma and Thailand please do email me and I’ll gladly send a copy over to you!

**It’s not often I forwardly ask people to share my articles or my blog, however I feel drawing attention to the illegal wildlife trade is a special case. If you do feel strongly about the illegal wildlife trade, or have been shocked and dismayed by the numbers, it would be incredible if you could share this article, or draw attention to the trade in some way or another. I understand people are often skeptical about what acts like this can achieve, but as I mentioned to in my concluding paragraph, if enough people shout loud enough the eventually governments will have to listen. Even the most uncooperative ones!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for writing about this topic Alex, as the illegal wildlife trade has the potential to overwhelm many conservation efforts. We need to make sure more people are aware of the scope of the problem.

    My sincerest hope is that if we make enough noise residents of nations like China will take note. As I’ve said over and over in the comments on my blog, they have the most power to end these killings. China is fast becoming a world leader in many domains…it’s time for them to become leaders in wildlife conservation too.

    Liked by 1 person

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