While more than 100,000 wild tigers roamed Asia and surrounding areas 100 year ago, now only as few as 3,200 wild tigers exist. In short, we have lost about 97 percent of the wild tiger population in one century. As with other endangered animals, human expansion, poaching, climate change and illegal wildlife trade all contribute to the rapid decline in tiger populations. Since illegal wildlife markets value every single part of tigers from whisker to tail, poachers continue to capitalize on diminishing tiger populations, killing as many as two tigers a week.
There are six subspecies of tigers: Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, South China, Sumatran and Malayan. While all of these subspecies are flagged as endangered, some have smaller populations than others. Fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers now exist in the wild, earning this subspecies—along with the South China wild tiger population—a critically endangered status from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Right now, 13 Tiger Range Countries (TRC)—including Bangladesh, China, Russia and Vietnam among others—are home to wild tigers. To keep the tiger from going extinct, 140 tiger experts and government officials congregated in Dhaka, Bangladesh this month to discuss how they can double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022. This particular group of activists also met in 2010 to similarly discuss how to prevent the complete annihilation of tiger species. While a few TRC nations—namely Russia, Nepal and India—were able to increase natural tiger populations in the four years since the last international meeting, most of the countries watched tiger populations further dwindle.
In many Asian countries, habitat loss and notoriously high poaching levels have prevented tigers from repopulating. Using a combination of poison, steel traps, electrical currents and firearms, poachers routinely kill tigers, selling the animals’ bones, teeth and hide to the highest black-market bidder. Experts say that the inability to enforce poaching regulations and a cultural demand for tiger products both severely threaten the tiger’s chance for survival.
To westerners the thought of poaching is disturbing at best, yet for many people living in TRC nations, poaching tigers is a way of life. In countries like India and China, tiger poaching is fueled by an increasingly high demand for tiger products, specifically for pelts and bones. Tiger bones are used in a number of expensive ancient medicines, including a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tonic thought to impart the tiger’s qualities on the person who drinks the liquid. Furthermore, tiger pelts, teeth and bones are all considered luxurious, high-end home decor for the uber-wealthy class.
As long as the richest of the rich continue to desire tiger-based products, poachers will continue killing. Years ago, poor locals in search of quick cash were more likely to be behind missing tigers. These days, international organized poaching rings are responsible for much of the tiger poaching, making them a much more formidable opponent for those who seek to keep tigers from going extinct. For more on the disappearing world of tigers, check out this National Geographic documentary: