Half of the world’s tiger population lives in India. In 2008, the National Tiger Conservation Authority estimated that there were 1,400 tigers alive -- a little over a third of the 3,700 that were alive in 2002.
It used to be that the loss of habitat was considered to be the most serious threat to wild tigers in India. However, since the mid-1980s, the poaching of tigers to supply the traditional Chinese medicine industry has increased. Tiger bones are thought to have important healing properties.
Although the government of India has invested a lot of funds to protect tigers in northern India in particular, it is difficult to prevent poachers.
Tiger skin and bones are very valuable
Belinda Wright, the Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, says that “poaching is widespread in India because of the value of tiger skin, bones and other body parts.”
Body parts go for 100 euros upwards on the black market in China. Yet, in India, says Wright, “a dead tiger doesn’t have any value. We know that tiger parts are being smuggled out of India, sometimes through Nepal -- the destination is always China.”
There is a superstitious belief in China that the prowess of the tiger will protect a house from fire, thieves or ghosts and people might buy tiger parts for this reason.
But generally the parts are sold for medicinal purposes. Henry Johannes Greten, the president of the German Association of Chinese Traditional Medicine, explains that the “principal use is to prevent muscle cramps and weakness of the bones and the lower back.”
“But there are many drugs that can replace tiger bones,” he insists. “Many animal parts are used in the Chinese diet and medicine. The Chinese mentality is less stringent in prohibiting the use of these animal parts."
Debate on lifting ban on use of tiger bones
But China did sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 1981, and in 1993 it imposed a ban on the harvesting of tiger bones.
Nonetheless, captive tigers continue to be bred. Some tiger breeders, medical practitioners and even officials want the ban on tiger bones to be lifted.
They argue that if organ transplants from dead humans can be used to save other humans, why should tiger parts not be used to cure human diseases?
Critics of tiger poaching, however, argue that wild tigers are at strong risk of extinction. They have called for stricter controls and tougher law enforcement in both India and China to protect tigers.
Author: Debarati Mukherjee
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein