Two illegally smuggled tigers per week are being seized by officials, according to a report, but this represents only a tiny fraction of those being killed.
The report, by the wildlife trade experts Traffic, was released at a summit of 183 countries under the Convention in the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), where many delegates have called for stronger action.
Traffic also found a surge since 2012 in seized carcasses, skins and bones from tiger farms. International trade in the species is banned, but the researchers said the captive-breeding facilities, mainly in China, undermine their protection by maintaining demand in domestic markets and enabling the laundering of wild tiger products.
There are fewer than 4,000 tigers in the wild but more than 7,000 in tiger farms, which sometimes masquerade as zoos. In 2016, more than 180 animals were seized at a tiger temple in Thailand.
Products from 2,359 tigers were seized between 2000 and 2018 across 32 countries, according to the report. “The numbers should be taken as the bare minimum,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, the south-east Asia director at Traffic. “There is a high chance we are intercepting only a very small percentage of illegal trade.”
She said Cites delegates should enforce long-mooted proposals for action, including the immediate closure tiger farms and tougher penalties on traffickers. In China, long jail sentences are handed out but in many other countries, such as Indonesia, only small fines are levied.
“The time for talking is over: words must be turned into action to prevent further tiger loss,” Krishnasamy said. “Every single one being taken out of the wild really matters.” Wild tiger numbers are highest in India but recent reports of a growing population there may be the result of better counting.
Songbirds were also on the agenda at Cites, with delegates from Sri Lanka and the US calling for better protection for the world’s 6,000 species, many of which have experienced severe declines in population.
The causes are habitat destruction, trapping for food and to sell as cage birds as well as for entry into singing competitions, which are particularly popular in Latin America.
Madhu Rao, the south-east Asia director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “Songbirds may be silenced if we don’t take action now on their behalf. This is a global problem.”
Elsewhere at the summit, an unusual method of detecting smuggled wildlife – using giant sniffer rats – was announced. Miriam Schneider, a senior researcher at the NGO Apopo, outlined the results of a proof-of-concept study that showed African giant pouched rats could be trained to detect pangolin scales and hardwood, even when the contraband was hidden among other materials.
Giant pouched rats have been used to detect and disarm 140,000 landmines and identify 15,000 tuberculosis patients without any harm to the animals. Schneider said the rats were smart, cheap to keep and transport, and happy to work for food treats.