Thai police arrest suspected tiger smugglers in April 2022. Photo: The Nation via WWF-Thailand

On April 6, police in Thailand arrested three men for illegal possession and trade of a tiger cub. Media photos illustrate the stark difference between the vulnerability of the three-month-old cub, no doubt scared and confused, in an open plastic basket, and three men in handcuffs surrounded by police in a shopping-mall parking lot.

This story demonstrates the horrific truth of the illicit international tiger trade and what is needed to combat it. 

WWF congratulates the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division (NED) of the Thai police and officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation on this recent seizure and arrests. This case demonstrates the positive outcomes that careful investigations and intelligence-led law enforcement can achieve.

Rescued tiger cub. Photo: Wildlife Justice Commission

This is not about catching the little guy, but apprehending the key players in international criminal networks. To halt international crime effectively, cooperation and information-sharing between law enforcement across borders is crucial. The perpetrators in this case allegedly confessed that the tiger cub was smuggled across the border from Laos. 

It’s estimated that at least 2,359 tigers were seized as whole specimens, parts or products from 2000-2018. The real number is likely much higher, as much of the trade remains hidden or unreported.

With only 3,900 tigers estimated to remain in the wild, poaching and trafficking are among the biggest threats pushing them toward extinction. This is driven by demand for use as decoration, purported medicine, health tonics, aphrodisiacs, luxury food, talismans, pets and more.

Cubs are also often traded to rear for future trade in their parts and products once grown. Tiger farms are facilities that keep and breed tigers in captivity for the purpose of commercial trade in the animals and their parts and products. 

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products. Yet there are thought to be more than 8,000 tigers in more than 300 facilities across Asia, from large zoos and entertainment facilities open to the public, to small back-yard operations, and even small, lightless basements.

Most are found in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. CITES plans missions to these countries to investigate their captive tiger facilities and their involvement in trade. We encourage CITES officials to conduct these visits as soon as possible.

Between 2012 and 2015 more than 30% of the tigers seized globally as specimens, parts or products were suspected to have come from a captive source. By feeding the trade, tiger farms strain law enforcement and perpetuate and even stimulate the demand, which also drives the poaching of wild tigers.

That is why WWF is among many calling for the phasing out of tiger farms. Yet political will to stop the damage from tiger farms on wild tiger populations is often weak and influenced by corruption, all combined with under-resourced law enforcement.

Authorities must treat tiger trade as the serious crime that it is, through successful arrests like the one in Thailand. However, these arrests are not the end of the story. The investigations should continue into their connections and finances to reveal other crimes and illicit contacts, as well as the source of the tiger cub. Plus a strong case should be made for the prosecution and conviction of these men, with penalties serving as effective deterrents to future crimes. 

In some cases law enforcement against tiger trade is strong, but all too often is not prioritized and is ill-resourced. In this Year of the Tiger, a new Global Tiger Recovery Program will be developed, agreed by tiger-range countries, including, it is hoped, Thailand and Laos.

Within this program, we must see a strong focus on trade including commitments to form national wildlife-crime task forces; to improve intelligence gathering, information-sharing and cooperation on tiger crimes, criminals and criminal networks; to stop the consumer demand fueling the trade; and to phase out tiger farms.

We want a future with tigers in the wild, not in plastic baskets.

A version of this article was also published by The Diplomat. You can read it here.

Natalie Phaholyothin is CEO of WWF-Thailand.