Saving the tigers

Saving the tigers

File photo dated April 6 shows “Nong Kwan” a tiger cub rescued from wildlife traffickers. The cub is now placed at Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP)’s wildlife center.

‘Nong Kwan”, a four-month-old tiger cub rescued from wildlife traffickers, has become a darling of animal lovers.

In fact, the usually under-visited Facebook site of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has lately seen thousands of concerned cub-watchers regularly stop by for an update on the cute little animal.

Images of the cub are likewise widely shared, for instance of the orphan being fed milk from a bottle, playing with dolls and canoodling with keepers. After requests for donations by the DNP so that more milk could be bought, some of Nong Kwan’s admirers instead sent in powdered milk to quickly help bulk up supplies.

Despite its plight, Nong Kwan was lucky. The cub was rescued from what could have been a very different fate on April 6 when wildlife police arrested three traffickers in the car park of the Central Westgate mall in Nonthaburi province.

The smugglers said they obtained the cub from Laos for delivery to a customer at a price of 400,000 baht. All the same, the DNP is conducting genetic tests to verify the cub’s origin as such animals smuggled into Thailand can be of various species, for instance, Bengal tigers from India or even Siberian tigers. Wildlife authorities have also found that some putatively smuggled tigers in fact originate from private zoos and breeding centres within Thailand.

Regardless of their origin, many smuggled tigers are destined for markets in China and Vietnam where their bones, skin, claws, teeth, blood and other parts will be used in “medicinal” products or perhaps sold as food ingredients.

According to the international conservation group Traffic, Asia has become a locus of tiger supply with upwards of 7,000-8,000 animals believed held in captive breeding facilities throughout the region. Between 2000 and 2015 some 758 tiger skins were seized; moreover, some 30% of all tiger products are thought to originate from captive-breeding situations.

The big question is how to put an end to such a cruel business. First, animal lovers must grasp the reality that neither policing alone nor their well-meaning donations are going to solve things.

The hard truth is that wildlife trafficking is lucrative, and getting more so. That fact can be seen everywhere from Africa to the Golden Triangle, where terrorist groups and drug smugglers, respectively, have diversified into wildlife trafficking.

As to Thailand’s part in all this, the government and conservation groups have worked hard to protect wildlife, including tigers.

Yet a government policy to increase the tiger population by permitting private zoos and state facilities to breed the animals in captivity has had unintended consequences: witness revelations that private zoos and even a temple in Kanchanaburi were caught selling tigers live or for parts such as claws and skins.

Granted, the policy has increased the number of tigers bred and raised in captivity to about 1,500, up from 660 in 2007, according to the DNP. This while the number of wild tigers at conservation parks has remained unchanged at 200-250.

But there’s another reality to confront: the policy increases the number of tigers that must live their entire lives in confinement. Whether this amounts to an improvement over tigers ending up as dubious medicines or delicacies is debatable.

But it’s a debate the government, conservation professionals and animal lovers must have. It will take more than cute pictures and powdered milk to save the tigers.