Stalking a goldmine in stripes

  • 30/05/1993

HUGE PROFITS are the main reason for the recent spurt in tiger poaching. A Royal Bengal tiger is a walking goldmine because its skin and bones are worth Rs 4.5 lakh. And, there is money to be made at every stage in the illegal tiger trade.

Tiger skins have traditionally served decorative purposes, but the demand for tiger bones is an emerging threat. Tiger bones are used in traditional Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean medicines. India's environment and forests minister Kamal Nath says about 100 tigers would have to be killed each year to meet the demand of China's state-run medicine factories alone.

India and China have agreed in principle to sign a protocol aimed at ending tiger poaching in India. A draft protocol was to be ready by June and a formal protocol a few months later. Under the envisaged framework, China would either legalise or in some other form, curb its illegal tiger trade, shut down medicine factories and teach the public that tiger bones lack medicinal properties.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (India) estimates 16-20 tigers were killed in Rajasthan's Ranthambore national park in 1991-92, and Vivek Menon, programme officer with TRAFFIC India, says 15 were killed in Dudhwa national park in Uttar Pradesh. The number of tigers killed in the north-east is anybody's guess. The increase has left officials red in the face and Project Tiger director Arin K Ghosh explains, "This is an embarrassment for us and we are trying to take corrective measures by arming guards and providing better communication equipment and vehicles."

In Ranthambore, the skills of the traditional hunter-gatherer Mogya tribals are reportedly being harnessed by poachers who pay Rs 800 for each tiger killed. The amount is handsome for the poor tribals, who sell the skin and bones in Sawai Madhopur, from where it is shipped to Delhi or Calcutta, TRAFFIC-India director Ashok Kumar discloses. By this time, the prices of both items have increased ten-fold.

TRAFFIC-India has identified one person as the kingpin in the tiger smuggling trade through Delhi and Calcutta. The skins are transported overland to Nepal and sold to foreigners there for prices that touch Rs 3 lakh per skin.

Tiger bones are moved out of the country by another route: They are packed as part of cattle bone consignments that India exports to the Far East and cannot be spotted because there are no experts who can identify them as tiger bones. A tiger yields up to 16 kg of bone and the going price in China is $250 a kg, which means a tiger's bones are worth about Rs 1.25 lakh.