In December 2013 at the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in India, we finally got the word: Three confiscated steel-jawed poacher’s traps would be brought to the Forest Department office at one o’clock, and we’d been granted permission to film them. We grabbed our equipment and jumped in the car. The rutted, mostly-dirt roads were so bad that it would take 45 minutes to drive some seven miles to get there.
National Geographic photographer Steve Winter and I had come to Central India to shoot the short video above, Battling India’s Illegal Tiger Trade, on one of the most devastating threats facing the world’s last 3,000 wild tigers: poaching.
Tigers are walking gold, worth a fortune on the black market. The demand is huge and prices continue to skyrocket. The cats are being slaughtered across India and their entire range, mostly for their bones and their magnificent pelts. (Related: “‘Cyberpoaching’ Feared as New Threat to Rare Wildlife“)
The bones are smuggled almost exclusively to China, used in tiger bone wine—a pricey traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tonic thought to impart the tiger’s great strength and vigor. But almost every part of the tiger is valued in TCM. Most of the skins end up in China, too, used for high-end tiger skin furniture and other luxury décor.
It’s rarely poor locals that are poaching tigers—it’s organized gangs. Tigers are part of a massive wildlife trade that’s run by sophisticated international crime syndicates, the same trade that’s wiping out elephants, rhinos and so many other species. It’s a 19 billion dollar a year business.