Illegal Tiger Trade: Why Tigers Are Walking Gold

Talking Tigers: Part 2 of a 12-part series

In December 2013 at the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in India, we finally got the word: Three confiscated steel-jawed poacher’s traps would be brought to the Forest Department office at one o’clock, and we’d been granted permission to film them. We grabbed our equipment and jumped in the car. The rutted, mostly-dirt roads were so bad that it would take 45 minutes to drive some seven miles to get there.

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter and I had come to Central India to shoot the short video above, Battling India’s Illegal Tiger Trade, on one of the most devastating threats facing the world’s last 3,000 wild tigers: poaching.

Tigers are walking gold, worth a fortune on the black market. The demand is huge and prices continue to skyrocket. The cats are being slaughtered across India and their entire range, mostly for their bones and their magnificent pelts. (Related: “‘Cyberpoaching’ Feared as New Threat to Rare Wildlife“)

The bones are smuggled almost exclusively to China, used in tiger bone wine—a pricey traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tonic thought to impart the tiger’s great strength and vigor. But almost every part of the tiger is valued in TCM. Most of the skins end up in China, too, used for high-end luxury décor.

It’s rarely poor locals that are poaching tigers—it’s organized gangs. Tigers are part of a massive wildlife trade that’s run by sophisticated international crime syndicates, the same trade that’s wiping out elephants, rhinos and so many other species. It’s a 19 billion dollar a year business.

We were working in India with two of the world’s foremost experts on the topic, Belinda Wright and Nitin Desai. In 1994, Wright heard rumors that outsiders were targeting big cats in Kanha Tiger Reserve, near where she lived. Tigers she’d spent years filming for her Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary, Land of the Tigerwere suddenly disappearing.

picture of Belinda Wright  tiger bones of Bengal tigers shot by poachers confiscated in India
Belinda Wright sorting through tiger bones seized near Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India in 1995. (Photograph courtesy the Wildlife Protection Society of India)

She figured out what was happening when a shop owner approached her in a nearby town one day. “I’ve got four fresh tiger skins. Do you know anyone who wants to buy them?” he whispered. She orchestrated a sting operation. Five people were arrested, uncovering a tiger-smuggling operation.

Later that summer, she and a friend traveled throughout the state to gauge the situation. “To my horror,” she said, “we were offered the skins and bones of 39 dead tigers, with offers in practically every city and town we investigated.” They identified 42 cat poachers and 32 dealers.

Wright abandoned her filmmaking career and founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), an organization she’s led ever since. Their focus: to gather information on wildlife crime—especially involving tigers—and assist enforcement authorities in arresting alleged criminals and curbing wildlife crime. (Related: “Tiger Poachers Get Stiff Sentences“)

Desai signed on in 1998. He now directs WPSI’s anti-poaching activities here in what is known as the “Central Indian Tiger Landscape.” About a quarter of the country’s 1,800 remaining Bengal tigers live here in India’s heartland, protected within a string of 13 tiger reserves. Tadoba-Andhari reserve, where we’re headed, is one of those tiger havens.


We traveled with Wright and Desai to the Forest Department office. They told us that guards had discovered the largest of the three confiscated traps—a tiger trap—in “buffer” forest just outside Tadoba. It was a crude, rusty iron contraption, maybe a foot in diameter, with large, serrated teeth. A thick chain was attached to anchor it to the ground. Below, Nitin Desai demonstrates how poachers set their homemade jaw traps to capture tigers near the Tadoba Tiger Reserve.

tiger poaching jaw traps tiger skins and tiger bone wildlife trade
(Still image from video by Steve Winter/National Geographic)
poachers trap use tiger poaching India tiger skins tiger bones
(Still image from video by Steve Winter/National Geographic)











It’s a common misbelief that organized tiger poachers use fancy, sophisticated weapons to kill tigers. Only organized poaching gangs use jaw traps. Tigers are rarely shot. A bullet hole ruins the skin.

Desai explained that these traps aren’t factory-made; they’re forged by a blacksmith over an open fire. From the design, he could tell that this one was made here in Central India: It was a type that had been used in the area for decades.

It took a nerve-wracking 15 minutes (with the help of a couple of guards) for Desai to pry it open and then set it, while doing his best to keep his hands out of its crushing jaws. “No tiger can escape from this trap, he said. “[It is] so strong, and so powerful.”

Then he jammed a thick branch into the trap and sprung it. It snapped shut with a sickening, metallic thud.

One trap can be reused again and again. There was no way of knowing how many tigers this hunk of metal had taken down.

tiger poaching  for tiger skins and tiger bones for illegal wildlife trade in India
Belinda Wright, Nitin Desai and Mukesh Bhandakka, of the Wildlife Protection Society of India examine confiscated tiger poaching traps outside Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Central India. (Still image from video by Steve Winter/National Geographic)


Poachers have vast knowledge of both tiger behavior and their distribution across India. Tigers that live on the edges of reserves or in adjoining forest are in the crosshairs. Poachers often work those forest fringes, targeting adults, particularly males—they get more money for their larger skins.

Poachers also know where enforcement is weakest. They pay locals for information on where and when anti-poaching patrols move through specific areas—and where tigers and their kills have been recently sighted.

Most gangs are nomadic, says Desai, striking an area and quickly moving on. They come into town in a group, often accompanied by their wives and children, who sell trinkets on the street while they’re camped there to divert attention.

They work during the dry season, placing jaw traps on trails or near water holes, often choosing full moon nights. That way, they don’t need flashlights that might give them away. Once a tiger is snared, “they do a kind of surgical strike, take down the tiger, remove the skin and bones and leave the area in about three hours,” says Desai. “They’re that fast.” The women often carry the contraband. There’s less chance of them being searched.

Except in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India’s forest guards are not armed. Few parks have good monitoring systems or effective patrolling strategies in place. “I think it’s correct to say that except for a few—maybe four or five tiger reserves in India—no tiger is really safe,” says Wright. (Related: “A Cry for the Tiger“)

Steve and I glimpsed how WPSI tries to stop poachers before they kill—rather than having to track them afterwards. One morning, just after dawn, we went to Khutwanda, a farming village that sits on Tadoba’s doorstep. Wright, Desai, and his colleague Mukesh Bhandakkar approached a group of men who sat on a wall in the center of the village, some of them dressed in traditional dhotis. They told them of WPSI’s “secret information reward scheme,” where they would pay for tips that led to a poaching arrest. They promised anonymity, and passed out flyers listing phone numbers they could call.

WPSI also employs roaming informers who follow the movements of poaching gangs as they move around the country.

tiger poaching and informants and wildlife trade in India
Villages in Khutwanda, a village just outside Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Central India, examine fliers describing The WIldlife Protection Society of India’s reward system for poaching tips. (Still image from video by Steve Winter/National Geographic)
tiger poaching and wildlife poaching and illegal wildlife trade
Information about poaching gangs that move into an area may save tigers’ lives. (Still image from video by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Those tips pay off. An example: Sita, a famous tigress photographed by Nick Nichols that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1997, vanished in the spring of ‘98. Four men were later arrested with bones and a skin that identified her: a tiger’s stripes are unique, like a human fingerprint. During the ensuing trial, one of the accused, Kailash Baheliya, faked a death certificate. He lived under an assumed name in another state until 2012, when he was IDed through a WPSI “reward system” informer. Now, 13 years later, he’s in jail, waiting to be tried for killing Sita—and faking his own death.

Since 2000, WPSI has assisted in over 360 cases that resulted in 892 arrests; they didn’t keep such records in their early years. The organization has amassed a wildlife crime database that’s one of the largest in the world, logging some 24,925 cases and profiles on 19,020 wildlife criminals. Most tiger killers in India are repeat offenders.

But the judicial system is overburdened, penalties are light, and wildlife crime sits low on the list of priorities. There is about a four percent conviction rate. From 1994-2013, 1,690 people were accused in tiger poaching and seizure cases; over that same period, just 69 were convicted in 25 cases. “It’s certainly not at a deterrent for anyone who wants to kill a tiger,” says Wright. “We’re following the same people again and again. Every single tiger that’s walking through India today has got a price on its head.”


Follow Sharon Guynup on Twitter: @sguynup

Next up: In part three of the Talking Tigers series, I’ll look at India’s Kids for Tigers program.

Sharon is a National Geographic Explorer. Her work focuses on environmental issues that impact wildlife, ecosystems, and human health--with a particular focus on wildlife trafficking and environmental crime. She has written widely on big cats, pangolins, rhinos and other endangered species and has written features, essays, blogs and commentary National Geographic, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American and other outlets. Her January 2016 story for National Geographic helped close down the Thai Tiger Temple--a combination monastery and tiger tourism operation that is now under investigation for black market wildlife trade. She's worked with jaguar researchers in the Brazilian Panatanal, with park guards in India's Kaziranga National Park (the last outpost for Indian one-horned rhinos) and in tiger reserves across the subcontinent. Sharon has also written and photographed from the remote heart of Eastern Siberia (where grizzlies still thrive), Turkey’s Eastern Anatolian villages, has traveled by boat to isolated river towns along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, driven across Cuba, explored African savannas and Latin American jungles and has spent considerable time beneath the sea in various oceans. Her book, "Tigers Forever: Saving the World's Most Endangered Big Cat" is a collaboration with National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, published in 2013 by National Geographic Books. In 2006, she launched the "State of the Wild: A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands and Oceans" book series for the Wildlife Conservation Society, published by Island Press. She has co-produced short videos for National Geographic, including "Special Investigation: Famous Tiger Temple Accused of Supplying Black Market" and "Battling India's Illegal Tiger Trade." Sharon lived in Turkey for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship, is a scuba diver, and worked as a photojournalist for some years before earning her Masters degree in Journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, where she has also taught as adjunct assistant professor. Sharon is currently a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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