Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine

Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine

by Richard Ellis

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Tiger Bone & Rhino Horns sheds light on the trade in animal parts for traditional Chinese medicine which is a leading cause of species endangerment in Asia.


Tiger Bone & Rhino Horns sheds light on the trade in animal parts for traditional Chinese medicine which is a leading cause of species endangerment in Asia.

Editorial Reviews

Susan Okie
For those ready to do battle to save endangered species, Ellis's book provides plenty of factual ammunition.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) frequently relies on medicines created from the body parts of animals that are rumored to have curative properties. Sea horses, for example, when consumed in large quantities, are alleged to cure everything from asthma to impotency. A worldwide interest in alternative medicine and the ease of international commerce have put dozens of species worldwide-such as American bears and African rhinos-at risk. The problem is serious, which makes it all the more unfortunate that veteran nature writer Ellis (The Empty Ocean) dilutes the issue by devoting so much space to other reasons why various species are on the verge of extinction. He also seems reluctant to blame TCM itself for creating the problem, especially given the lack of evidence of medical benefits for many of its practices. Ellis repeatedly puts forth the altruistic notion that if people only knew these remedies were obtained at the risk of other species' extinction, demand would decrease. Similarly, he suggests that making Viagra widely available will reduce the market for animal-based aphrodisiacs. Such optimism suggests that, while Ellis displays an exemplary knowledge of the animal kingdom, he has a few things left to learn about human nature. B&w photos. (June 30) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn

The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Richard Ellis


Copyright © 2005 Richard Ellis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-953-7


Tyger, Tyger

Wherever wild tigers live, they are revered. Alive they are affiliated with gods or admired for their striking appearance; dead they provide trophies or a pharmacological bounty for consumers. In his book The Tiger Hunters, Reginold Burton (born in 1864, so presumably active around 1890) described what happened to the carcass of a tigress that he had shot in India:

The "lucky bones" were cut out of the chest by Nathu. These are clavicles or rudimentary collar-bones found in all the cat-tribe, about four inches long and hatchet-shaped in the tiger. They are much prized, and, as well as the claws, often mounted in gold and hung round the necks of children to keep off evil. Great care was taken to collect all the fat from the tigress; this was boiled down in a pot over the fire and stored in bottles. The villagers also carried off not only bits of flesh and the liver, but the whole legs and quarters. On being questioned, the Subadar said that the fat was most valuable as a remedy for rheumatism and to make men strong when rubbed into the patient. This is a universal belief throughout the whole of India, where the fat of tigers is everywhere highly prized. He added that the villagers would eat the flesh and especially the liver, the latter being supposed to impart to those who partook of it some of the courage of the tiger.

For centuries, medical traditions throughout Asia have called for the use of exotic-animal parts in healing. However, in the last two decades, the demand for tiger parts has skyrocketed while the population of wild tigers has begun to collapse.

"Beginning about 1986," wrote Geoffrey Ward in National Geographic magazine, "something ... began to happen, something mysterious and deadly. Tigers began to disappear. It was eventually discovered that they were being poisoned and shot and snared so that their bones and other body parts could be smuggled out of India to supply the manufacturers of traditional Chinese medicines."

Until recently, habitat loss was thought to be the largest single threat to the future of wild tigers in India, but while the danger of habitat loss is as great as ever, the trade in tiger bones, destined for use in Asian medicine outside India's borders, is posing an even larger threat. As the Chinese tiger population declined toward extinction, the suppliers or manufacturers of traditional medicines turned to India for tiger bones. The poaching of tigers for the Chinese medicine industry started in India's southern region during the mid-1980s but has now spread to all areas where large number of tigers have been recorded, particularly in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Firearms are sometimes used, but where shooting is impractical, poison or traps are employed. Poison is usually placed in the carcasses of domestic buffaloes and cows; forest pools that serve as water sources may also be poisoned. Steel traps, made by nomadic blacksmiths, are also used and are immensely strong; in a tiger-poaching case near Raipur in 1994, it took six adult men to open a trap. In one area in central India, investigators found that so many steel traps had been set, villagers were afraid to enter that part of the forest.

Major traders operate sophisticated and well-organized supply routes, sometimes to distribute poison, but always to collect tiger bones from even the remotest villages. It is the traders and other middlemen who make most of the substantial profits to be gained from the illegal trade in tiger parts. A tiger can be killed for as little as just over a dollar for the cost of poison, or $9 for a steel trap. Much of the tiger poaching is done by tribal peoples who know the forests well. They are usually paid a meager amount; in a case near Kanha Tiger Reserve, in May 1994, for example, a trader paid four poachers just $15 each for killing a tiger. Sometimes the animals are killed as a result of livestock predation and the body parts are kept in hope of an opportunity to sell them. As the illicit skins move up the commodity chain, from poacher to trader, the potential profits increase exponentially. Although the couriers receive more than the poachers, the real money is made by the traders at the top of the chain, who direct the smuggling syndicates and have links to the buyers. The value of a 2003 Tibet seizure of 31 tigers, 581 leopards, and 778 otters was 6.52 million yuan, or US$787,000. In Tibet, international Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) examiners were told that a tiger skin was worth US$10,000, a leopard skin was offered for $850, and an otter skin was valued at $250 (Banks and Newman, 2004).

The scale of tiger poaching is enormous considering how relatively few there are left. According to investigations carried out by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a total of 36 tiger skins and 667 kilograms (1,470 pounds) of tiger bones were seized in northern India in 1993–94 alone. In January 2000, officials in Khaga, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, arrested four people who had 4 tiger skins, 70 leopard skins, and 221 otter skins as well as 18,000 leopard claws, 132 tiger claws, and 175 kilograms (385 pounds) of tiger bones. Up to that time, it was the largest seizure of its kind in India. Because the skins had no bullet holes or snare wounds in them, it was determined that the cats had been poisoned. In the raid on a taxidermy shop south of the city of Lucknow, officials also recovered 1,800 tiger and leopard claws, and 200 skins of the blackbuck, a highly endangered Indian antelope. For the decade between 1994 and 2003, the WPSI documented the poaching and seizure of 684 tigers, 2,335 leopards, and 698 otters in India alone. In Cat News (2004), Belinda Wright, Executive Director of WPSI, noted that "Between 12 June and 10 July 2004, 10 tiger skins, 4 sacks of fresh tiger bones, and the claws of 31 tigers and leopards were seized in 11 cases throughout India and Nepal."

The Wildlife Protection Society of India works with government enforcement agencies to apprehend tiger poachers and traders throughout India. It also investigates and verifies reports of unnatural tiger deaths and seizures of tiger parts. The following statistics, supplied by the WPSI, for documented cases of tiger kills in recent years indicate how persistently tiger killings are carried out, though the figures represent only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in tiger parts in India.

The WPSI also tracks reports of tigers described only as "found dead." Many of these deaths are likely due to poaching, but given a lack of clear evidence that this is true, they have not been included in the above figures. Furthermore, since the central and state Indian governments do not systematically compile information on tiger poaching, the WPSI must initially rely on reports from enforcement authorities and other sources, which also underestimate the total. "To reach an estimate of the magnitude of the poaching of tigers in India," WPSI concludes, "it may be interesting to note that the Customs authorities multiply known offenses by ten to estimate the size of an illegal trade." Thus for the years 2000 to 2002, the total number might not be 168, but closer to 1,680.

In a 2004 article about wildlife poaching in the popular magazine India Today, Murali Krishnan wrote that not much happens to poachers even when they're caught:

Besides the inaction in setting up a task force to check poaching, the law too has been lax in imposing penalties or convicting those who have been caught. This has provided poachers the motivation to carry on with their activities unhindered. According to the WPSI, between 1994 and 2003, there were 784 cases of seizure of tiger, leopard, or otter skins. Over 1,400 individuals were accused in connection with these cases, but there were only 14 records of conviction and sentencing.

In 1997, Peter Jackson of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group estimated the total number of tigers left throughout Asia. The most numerous is the "Bengal" (Indian) tiger, with a total population ranging from 3,060 to 4,375. It is found in Bangladesh (300–460), Bhutan (50–240), China (30–35), Myanmar (no information available), Nepal (180–280), and India (2,500–3,750). The Caspian, Javan, and Bali subspecies are extinct. There are also between 437 and 506 Siberian (Amur) tigers, 400 to 500 Sumatran tigers, and 1,180 to 1,790 Indochinese tigers in Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Poaching constitutes the most direct threat to India's tigers by targeting ever-dwindling numbers of individual animals, but habitat loss due to growing numbers of humans and their expanding settlements—India's immense population is now over a billion and climbing—exacerbates the problem. When people live in or near places where tigers live, proximity might occasionally end badly for a person, and it almost always ends badly for the tiger. The Panna Preserve, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, is tropical dry forest, which characterizes some 45 percent of India's tiger habitat. From 1996 to 1997, three researchers, Raghundan Chundawat, Neel Gogate, and A. J. T. Johnsingh (1999), collared and radio-tracked tigers to evaluate their activities and range, and approached feeding tigers on elephant back to see what they were eating. The researchers found that the dry forest habitats support a relatively low population of large ungulates, such as deer and wild pigs, and have a high level of human disturbance. The scarcity of large ungulates means that the Panna tigers have to eat smaller prey such as monkeys to survive, but they are also likely to take cattle, which does not endear them to the local herders. "Tigers in fact take less than 1% of the available cattle each year, but taking cattle on any scale places tigers at the risk of poisoning and creates bad feeling towards them," the authors wrote, urging the creation of areas within the preserve that would be off limits to humans in order to save the remaining tiger population.

Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, located just north of the Indian border and incorporating some 360 square miles of the Terai floodplain at the foot of the Himalayas, is the scene of both increased human presence and the threat of poaching. In 1973, fresh out of graduate school (where he had studied radio-tracking mountain lions in Idaho), John Seidensticker first visited Chitwan to collar and track the tigers as a member of the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Project. The area had just been designated a park, and the adjacent town of Sauraha (pop. 8,338) was, he observed in his 1996 book, "a sleepy collection of reed houses plastered with cow dung. There were no hotels, inns or restaurants." By 1996, the human population immediately outside the park had grown to 300,000, and the sleepy collection of reed houses had become a tourist center with dozens of hotels, inns, and bars, and viewing platforms from which tourists could watch rhinos and occasionally tigers. There were two lodges, Temple Tiger Camp and Tiger Tops, from which one might venture out on elephant back to see the great cats, as well as rhinos, leopards, various types of deer, monkeys, sloth bears, and blackbuck antelopes.

It's clear that poaching—of tigers and their prey—is reducing the tiger population, but in 1995, John Kenney, James Smith, Anthony Starfield, and Charles McDougal decided to find out by how much. They studied data collected over a twenty-year period in Chitwan National Park and analyzed the survival, fecundity, and dispersal pattern of a population of tigers estimated at between 119 and 210. (As with most tiger populations, those in Chitwan can only be estimated; because the tigers are rarely seen, the estimates are based on comparisons with other populations on the Indian subcontinent, which themselves are unreliable because they are based on the analysis of footprints [pugmarks], which may—or may not—differ from tiger to tiger.) The researchers' computer models showed that "a critical zone exists at which a small, incremental increase in poaching greatly increases the probability of extinction. The implication is that poaching may not at first be seen as a threat but could suddenly become one." In a 1999 follow-up study of Chitwan, another set of researchers, Smith, McDougal, et al., estimated a total of about forty tigers, suggesting that the original estimates of between 119 and 210 were either much too high, or—more likely—that poachers had managed to kill off as many as three-quarters of the Chitwan tigers in four years.

In 1969, when it appeared that the world's tiger populations were already becoming dangerously low, the IUCN held a conference in New Delhi to discuss the problems. Three years later, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, the IUCN initiated "Project Tiger," with the intention of raising support for tiger conservation programs in India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set aside nine national parks—Manas, Palamau, Similipal, Corbett, Ranthambhore, Kanha, Melghat, Bandipur, and Sundarbans—for the protection of India's tiger population, then estimated at about 1,500 animals. India's Project Tiger was set up in 1973, and its first director was Kailash Sankhala. In the early years of Project Tiger, every reserve showed a decrease in hunting and an increase in tigers, leading Dr. Sankhala to write in 1977, "I am greatly encouraged by the response of the habitat, the tigers, and their prey in the Tiger Reserves. It may be too early to predict the outcome of this effort, but it is surely not too much to hope that ultimately the tiger will be restored to a less precarious position than he is at present."

Alas, it was not to be. The tiger is now in a more precarious position than he was in 1977. Since the inception of Project Tiger three decades ago, the population of India has increased by 300 million people and livestock numbers have risen by 100 million. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, and without her support, Project Tiger all but evaporated, largely because it was not given the resources required to be effective. Although the project still exists—and now oversees another eighteen reserves—almost all the reserves were invaded by settlers who needed food and fodder, and who regarded the tigers as a nuisance or, in some cases, a threat. Tigers were killed because they interfered with farming, and some because they interfered with the very lives of the farmers. And starting in the late 1980s, they were increasingly killed for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

In a report published in 1998, the director of Project Tiger, P. K. Sen, commented on these tiger killings (as quoted in Valmik Thapar's The Secret Life of Tigers):

It is my considered opinion, after more than one and a half years as Director [of] Project Tiger, that the tiger and its ecosystem is facing its worst ever crisis. I feel that the figures of one tiger death every day may even be an underestimate and there are many reasons to say so. If one out of every ten tigers poached, poisoned or crushed under the wheels of a vehicle, three are tigresses who have cubs, all the cubs will die unnoticed because they are totally dependent on the mother. The death of three resident male tigers will result in new males occupying the vacant ranges, and in the first instance they will kill all cubs in order to father their own litters. Thus for every ten tigers killed, sometimes as many as fifteen additional tigers die.... On the occasion of 25 years of Project Tiger, unless revolutionary steps are taken immediately, there is little hope for the future and we could be reaching the point of no return.

When Richard Perry published The World of the Tiger in 1964, tigers had been hunted for centuries throughout their range, and only the Balinese tiger was known to have been driven to extinction. The Caspian tiger would be seen for the last time four years after Perry's book appeared, and the Javan tiger was still hanging on. Though the world's tiger population was only about 15,000, according to Perry, few people had begun to worry that the entire species would become extinct. Perry himself, however, was all too aware of the unresolved conflict between human and animal populations, and he wrote: "One suspects that in the end it will probably be solved in a manner disastrous for both men and animals; but we must continue trying to solve it humanely."

Humans are not to be defined by their humane behavior, especially to animals. In the decades following publication of Perry's book, the Javan tiger disappeared and tiger populations seemed to be falling everywhere in India, so "Project Tiger" was initiated to protect them. Just when it looked as if they might recuperate, however, poachers began killing them with such celerity that the remaining Indian tigers have careened toward extirpation. White hunters and maharajas behaved as if their goal was to eliminate the tiger by their wanton hunting, and in their wake, the poaching brigade, attracted in large part by the lucrative trade in animal parts for traditional Chinese medicine, is nearing dubious success in wiping wild tigers off the face of the earth.

Accidentally or intentionally, the conflict between human and animal populations that Perry referred to is leading to the imminent extinction of many species. Habitat destruction, hunting, fishing, pollution, global warming, and numerous other factors have been identified as significant threats to the world's wildlife. The demand of traditional Chinese medicine for animal parts is emblematic of this conflict. The reasons for killing bears, rhinos, elephants, seals, sea horses, and numerous other species are sometimes different than the reasons for killing tigers, but extinction is extinction, no matter what the rationale or explanation.


Excerpted from Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn by Richard Ellis. Copyright © 2005 Richard Ellis. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Ellisis the author of many books including The Empty Ocean (Island Press, 2003), Great White Shark (Harper Collins, 1991), Imagining Atlantis (Knopf, 1998), The Search for the Giant Squid (Lyons, 1998), Aquagenesis (Viking, 2001), and No Turning Back (Harper Collins, 2004). Ellis is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as a celebrated artist whose works have been exhibited in museums worldwide.

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