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Tracking tigers in Asia's hunting grounds

Wildlife trafficking across Asia is a multi-billion dollar business. Now the National Geographic Channel hopes to promote more awareness to stop the trade.

Tigers are becoming a rare sight in Asia

Tigers are becoming a rare sight in Asia

In a hotel in northern Thailand an undercover police operation is underway to rescue a tiger from traffickers. They fit a GPS transmitter to follow the Thai police agents travelling with the traffickers.

It is all being shown in the episode "Tiger Trackdown," one of four episoded in the TV documentary series "Crimes Against Nature," broadcast on National Geographic channel in Asia. Others look at wild life trade in Thai markets, illegal ivory trade, and the smuggling of wildlife from Cambodia. These dramas are real and potentially deadly as undercover Thai police cut deals with the traffickers.

Eventually they close in on their target. The traffickers try to escape. But arrests are swift. The tiger cub is rescued. But the gang’s leader, a Vietnamese-born woman married to a Thai police officer, remains at large.

There is big money and corruption in the tiger trade

There is big money and corruption in the tiger trade

Big business

In Asia tigers in the wild fetch up to 20,000 US dollars. But the value soars by up to five times that amount in regional destinations such as China and Vietnam. Steve Galster, director for the US-backed Freeland Foundation to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, says corruption is a major problem. "Due to the enormity of wildlife crime in Asia there is a lot more corruption than we thought."

But Galster says there are also "good" police on the task force.

He says the national Bangkok-based unit "are pretty clean but they need comrades on the ground who are going to help them out. And it’s tough - it’s a cat and mouse game. Good cop versus bad cop."

Growing markets

Kraisak Choonhavan, a former Thai senator and Freeland board member, says the demand has come amid the region’s buoyant growth. "What we’re up against is the formidable demand from the market." He points out that there are not only large markets in Thailand, but also "in China, Vietnam and increasingly Thailand" who increasingly want "to get away with being branded as the centre for trafficking wild animals, but the demand keeps growing."

Luckily, India's latest tiger census shows an increase in the numbers of the endangered big cat

Luckily, India's latest tiger census shows an increase in the numbers of the endangered big cat

Galster says Vietnam is the new growing market. A recent Vietnam university survey found consumption of game meat was growing among Ho Chi Minh City’s middle class. He believes Vietnam’s role in consuming and trading endangered species in the region is "much higher than we thought. We used to think all tigers crossing borders dead or alive on their way toward Vietnam were just transmitting on their way to China, that’s not the case. A lot of them were being offloaded, processed and sold."

Animal welfare groups say Asia needs to improve conservation, enforcement and development of national parks and that all efforts must be backed by political will if the the illegal wildlife trade is to be stopped.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning

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