Troubling Trends in Tiger Trade: Q&A with Heather Sohl
© WWF-UK / James Morgan





First of all, what is the Skin and Bones report and why is it significant?
The recently launched Skin and Bones: Tiger Trafficking Analysis from January 2000 to June 2022 report is the fifth in a series of reports by TRAFFIC dating back to 2010. The reports represent the “go-to” reference for tiger trade as they offer a comprehensive assessment of the seizures of tigers and their parts and products worldwide.  This year’s report pulls from the most extensive database yet of tiger seizures from January 2000 to June 2022 across 50 countries and territories globally.

Confiscated rhinoceros horns, tiger skin and bones at Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
© Jim Jabara / WWF


This year’s report suggested an estimate of 3,377 tigers were seized — that’s an average of 150 tigers per year. How is this number determined? 

Every single tiger part — from tooth to tail — is sold in the illegal wildlife trade. TRAFFIC’s report takes the number of these parts from each documented seizure and estimates how many tigers in total might have been involved.  

Of the minimum estimated total of 3,377 tigers seized, almost one-third of the confiscations actually involved whole tigers, accounting for a total of 1,419 tigers. By also assessing the numbers of various seized tiger parts — which includes 1,313 whole skins, more than 2.9 tonnes of tiger bones, and 403 whiskers — the total minimum number of tigers is 3,377. 

But this is of course challenging for several reasons. For example, if the data reports five tiger paws, that could come from a minimum of two tigers, but it could also come from five tigers.  Distinguishing between tiger and other big cat parts is also a tricky process, given that when stripped down to the bone, tooth or claw, big cats are very similar. To prevent overestimation, TRAFFIC reports the minimum.

What that means is that the actual number could be much, much higher, and  we suspect that it is. But since we’re talking about illegal trade here, which is rarely documented in official reports, this number is just a fraction of what’s actually out there.

A tiger skeleton submerged in liquor at a store in Mong La, special administrative zone, Myanmar.
© WWF-Myanmar


How did TRAFFIC collect and make sense of such an immense amount of data across all these countries over the past decades?

The way TRAFFIC collects data for these reports is by gathering information from open sources like media outlets, as well as from governments and NGOs who collect data on tiger seizures. They look at the key information — like locations involved, quantities involved, whether the trade routes are known, and whether it's known to come from the wild or from captive sources.

They also look at what kind of items are seized, with these products ranging from skins, bones, teeth, claws, wine, medicines, health tonics and more, sought for decoration, health, magical talismans and ultimately a display of status and wealth.

A tiger's testicle, of dubious authenticity, on sale at Tha Phra Chan market, Bangkok, Thailand.
© WWF / James Morgan


This is the 5th report of its kind since the first one was published in 2010. What has changed since?

In each report, TRAFFIC has been able to gather more data and also analyse it in new comprehensive ways. More non-governmental organisations are collecting information and also more government partners are providing data. Whereas the first report focused on only tiger range countries, they are now able to create a global analysis of tiger seizures.

This means we have a better understanding of tiger seizures. But it’s worth noting that when we speak about seizures, that’s only giving us one part of the picture of tiger trade. If we see an increase in the number of seizures, it could very well mean an increase in tiger trade, but equally it could mean that law enforcement efforts have been improving. For example, this year’s report highlights that 77% of the total number of seizure incidents took place within the 13 tiger range countries, which could mean that most of these activities are occurring within places where wild tigers are found or could also mean that activities elsewhere are simply happening under the radar. Regardless, it still gives us an indication where the trade is happening, especially when supplemented by market data. 

Confiscated illegal traditional Chinese medicinal products extracted from tigers and other wildlife.
© Edward Parker / WWF


What has been one of the biggest differences between the first report and the latest one?

One of the biggest differences between the first report and this latest one is the prominence of captive tigers. Since 2000, at least 744 tigers were suspected to have originated from confirmed or suspected captive sources. The share of incidents capturing whole tigers from captive sources has also increased over the years - from 9% in 2005 to over 50% in 2018 and 2019, totalling at least 186 incidents across 28 countries. 

Back in 2000, there were fewer tigers in captivity and fewer tiger farms. Now we have over 8,000 tigers in over 300 facilities across Asia, with the most, around 6,000 of these big cats, located in China, followed by Thailand, Lao PDR and Viet Nam. For perspective, there are only around 4,500 tigers left in the wild. 

The problem is tiger farms are increasing the amount of trade that's out there, which potential customers see and get interested in, feeling it’s socially acceptable and freely available. And when you combine that with the fact that consumers have been shown, in surveys, to have a preference for wild tigers – especially in medicines, because they think it’s more potent – it will encourage even more poaching from the wild.

This is particularly alarming given that this year’s report points to troubling trends in the first half of 2022; during the first six months, Indonesia, Russia and Thailand recorded significant increases in the number of incidents compared to the previous years.  Indonesia recorded 18 tigers seized during this time, double the volumes reported in 2021 and 2020, raising concerns about the future of wild tigers in the country. 

Find out more here: What I Saw at a Chinese Tiger Farm

Tigers in captive facilities, Thailand.
© Gordon Congdon


When it comes to consumers of tiger products, do they not know about the negative effects of their demand, or do they just not care?

Some reports have shown that consumers just aren’t aware of the status of tigers in the wild and think there are far more left. But some surveys have also shown that consumers don’t really empathise with the plight of the tiger, feeling it’s distant from them or not seeing any relevance to their own lives. As conservationists, we might think that images of tigers or rhinos on a poster to encourage consumers to stop buying their parts and products may elicit an emotional response and provoke people to stop consuming them, but that doesn’t always happen.

That’s why consumer demand reduction campaigns now use different, better evidence-based approaches. Researchers look at who is buying the products and why, and how they could communicate to best change their minds. To give you an example, a TRAFFIC survey found that, in Viet Nam, the typical tiger consumer profile is a male in his 50s who’s social, extroverted and values respect from his peers. He’d mainly use wildlife products as medicine or aphrodisiacs, or as gifts to impress people. That demographic information was then used to design a campaign, alongside key partners, to target and change consumer behaviour, emphasising messages around strength, leadership, dignity or respect. They also didn't put any TRAFFIC logos on it, because as soon as consumers see it’s an environmental or welfare organisation, they feel they’re being preached to.

A stockpile of confiscated tiger parts and other illegal wildlife products being burned in Nepal, showing the nation’s commitment towards zero tolerance of wildlife crime.
© WWF-Nepal / Akash Shrestha


How can governments better tackle the trade?

A key approach is strengthening law enforcement and improving techniques to find, arrest and prosecute perpetrators. We now have better ways of collecting and analysing data and securing evidence, like using DNA forensics and investigating financial trails to trace criminals on the ground to the centre of their crime network. Intelligence-led enforcement needs to come together and law enforcement officers need to be well-trained and motivated to tackle wildlife crimes.  

Just as important is strong political will to prioritise and invest in their national and transboundary law enforcement efforts. Tiger trade should be treated as a serious organised crime, such as with the trafficking of humans, drugs and arms, especially considering that some criminal syndicates and supply chains are linked between these types of crime. In India and Nepal they've established national wildlife crime units that are designed to bring together different enforcement agencies to tackle illegal wildlife trade as a serious crime. They bring in intelligence information and various other sectors in their own countries while also talking to those across borders. Having that cross-border cooperation and coordination is really vital especially for information and intelligence sharing.

One of 16 tiger cubs seized from smugglers in October 2012. A veterinary team from the wildlife forensic unit takes blood samples to support efforts to trace the DNA. Chaiyaphum, Thailand.
© WWF / James Morgan


So what next? How can the data from the latest Skin and Bones report help protect tigers?

The Skin and Bones report is always produced before a meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP). This triennial meeting reviews and makes decisions related to wildlife trade, including for tigers - with international tiger trade banned by CITES, and measures discussed to stop illegal tiger trade. Producing this report in advance of that event enables us to use this information to influence governments’ decisions.

CITES CoP19 is coming up soon (14 to 25 November, 2022 in Panama City) and so we’ll use the report to demonstrate where there is a lack of implementation and attention on the activities that need to take place to tackle tiger trade. There is progress in some countries, but much more needs to be done. We know what the solutions are but we really need governments to provide the political will, resources and dedication to actually implement them fully. The report includes these in its recommendations:

  • Intelligence-driven investigations to dismantle the entire criminal networks operating from point of source to market; 
  • Markets that are selling tiger parts and products must be shut down;
  • Boost investigation and prosecution skills towards strong conviction outcomes; 
  • The phase out of facilities holding and breeding captive tigers that contribute to trade;
  • DNA analysis and skin stripe pattern images from confiscated parts, used as a law enforcement tool;
  • Better collaboration across law enforcement agencies; and 
  • Transparency of law-enforcement actions.

In 2020, only four of the 13 tiger range countries reported on their actions agreed at CITES to stop tiger trade, and it showed that there was little attention to really making sure that all relevant governments do what it takes to tackle the trade. If CITES can’t tackle the illegal trade of the tiger, a big and well-known flagship species, it demonstrates that it isn’t delivering as much as it can for all species we’re concerned about. I hope that this year will be different.

Heather Sohl is the Tiger Trade Lead at WWF and Trustee on the TRAFFIC International Board.
© Lauren Simmonds


Read TRAFFIC’s latest Skin and Bones report here.