In the early 1970s, the "Project Tiger" conservation program launched in India resulted in tough laws to prevent Bengal tiger hunting and trade, and created a system of tiger reserves, now numbering 27. But now more than 30 years later, less than 6,000 tigers are estimated to be left in the wild. Environmentalists in India say the big cat will be extinct within a handful of years, due to unchecked poaching to serve the thriving black market for tiger body parts (used in traditional Chinese and Asian medicine). They’re calling for stricter prohibition and harsher enforcement, and have even suggested using the army to protect the tigers.
There is plenty of incentive to kill wild tigers—a dead tiger is worth up to $160,000 at retail markets in Southeast Asia. Between 1999 and 2003, more than 400 cases were filed against people accused of killing tigers or trading tiger body parts, but not a single case led to a conviction.
China contributes to the problem, where police turn a blind eye to the sale of tiger parts smuggled in across the Indian border, says Belinda Wright, director of India’s Wildlife Protection Society. She adds that China’s tough laws against trading in endangered animal species are not enforced, so they fail to stem the tide of poaching in India where the majority of Bengal tigers live. Wright believes that India will soon have no tigers left at all. "We need to start imagining a world without the great predators," she says.
An exposé on the use of tiger skins in Tibetan ceremonial dress published last year by the Wildlife Protection Society and the Environmental Investigation Agency raised awareness, and the practice was stopped after the Dalai Lama denounced it. But Wright concludes that the market for tiger skins and other body parts will continue to expand unless the governments of India and China make a concerted effort to enforce strict prohibitions.
But the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), an American nonprofit focused on improving environmental quality through market forces, believes that enforcement efforts to prevent poaching has already proved ineffective. Instead, the group is calling for increasing captive breeding programs for tigers to relieve pressure on wild populations. PERC applauds on-going efforts by the Chinese government to harness commerce for the cause of tiger conservation, despite the fact that less than 30 tigers exist in the wild there. China currently hosts 20 tiger-breeding facilities that generate revenue through wildlife tourism. PERC would like to see China further expand the breeding program to meet the strong demand for tiger body parts as well.
"A successful wildlife economy will help build awareness of the value of environmental resources," says PERC’s Barun Mitra. "The price of the tiger in the black market will collapse and legal trade will thrive."
At this point, it may take all of these tactics and more to save the endangered Bengal tiger.