Less than a decade ago, the 13 nations where tigers still lived free met in St Petersburg, Russia, and pledged to reverse this majestic cat’s long prowl toward extinction at the hands of human predators. The moment was hailed as historic – the start of an unprecedented undertaking spearheaded by the tiger-range states and supported by a number of partners that included the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, the United States, Germany and non-governmental organizations including WWF.

Their simple-sounding but ambitious goal was to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger on the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2010, it was estimated there were as few as 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild.

So what has happened since then? Some progress, for sure. There are estimated to be around 3,900 tigers roaming free across their Asian and Russian ranges – an encouraging increase. The latest estimates from India and Nepal and the progress made in countries such as Bhutan, China and Russia are further encouraging.

However, in Cambodia and Vietnam tigers are most likely extinct, in Laos the species is nearly extinct, and in Malaysia it is in a worrying decline. A key reason for the local extinctions and population declines is poaching and illegal trade in tiger parts and products, promoted in part by the growth and proliferation of so-called tiger farms mostly found in China and other range states – notably Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

These facilities, often posing as zoos and tourist attractions, breed captive tigers – often in horribly inhumane conditions – with their skins, bones, meat and other body parts sold into the tiger trade. Tiger farms have grown to the point where captive tigers in farms outnumber their wild counterparts by about two to one. Some argue that meeting the expansive demand for tiger products – tiger wine, tiger-bone glue, medicinal pastes, decorative pelts and trinkets made of claws and teeth coveted as status symbols in Asia – from “farmed” tigers might help curb the illegal poaching and trade in body parts from wild tigers. Mounting evidence suggests that, far from dampening demand for wild tiger parts, farming tigers seems to encourage it.

A small cage inappropriate for this species holds a baby tiger at Sriracha Tiger Zoo near Pattaya, Thailand, in December 2012. Photo: Copyright © Anton Vorauer / WWF

The international community suspected this back in 2007 when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and products. The call on the implicated governments has been clear in the years that followed; put in place a clear plan and timetable for phasing out captive breeding facilities used for commercial purposes and ban trade in all tiger parts and products from any source.

Since then, however, efforts have been patchy at best and woefully inadequate at worst – more than 12 years later, we now have more tigers in more farms, in more countries.

But could we now be seeing a positive change? China has the most tigers in farms, with estimates suggesting large increases over time, from 13 in 1986, to 4,000 in 2007 and now 5,000 to 6,000 captive tigers. In 2018 China announced strict bans on the use of tiger bones in medicines, the import, export, sale, purchase, transport, carrying and mailing of tigers and their products.

Ongoing strict enforcement of these comprehensive bans – witnessed in a six-week-long clampdown soon after the bans were announced – will make tiger farms economically unviable, as visitor fees alone cannot cover the expense of feeding and housing thousands of tigers. Indeed, if the large state-owned tiger parks prevented further breeding (for example, by separating male and female tigers) and undertook transparent monitoring and reporting of all their tigers, this would send a clear signal that these facilities are not to be involved in trade.

An end to domestic tiger trade in China has not been widely acclaimed, certainly not like the domestic ivory-trade ban that started in 2018.  The bans are not codified in legislation, it’s not clear if previous loopholes allowing some permitted trade have been closed, and there is limited understanding of associated arrests, seizures, prosecutions, convictions and penalties.

Many hope greater clarity on these points will come as the 183 government signatories to CITES meet in Geneva this month (August 17-28) for the 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) – where tiger farms are on the agenda. Such clarity will display China’s leadership in enacting these strict bans, which it should also utilize to call upon its neighbors – Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – to follow suit, so that the problems are not diverted over the border.

The numbers of captive tigers and tiger farms across Southeast Asia – especially in those three countries – have grown since CITES agreed to the decision in 2007 to ban trade from captive tigers. Not only are there large facilities, but also privately owned, smaller operations, with reports pointing to their involvement in international illegal trade in tigers and their parts and products.

When they meet, the parties should also recommend that CITES undertakes inspection and assessment missions to tiger farms of concern. Since its original decision in 2007, only one such mission has taken place (to Laos in 2017). To date, most of what is known about the farms has been collected by NGOs such as the Environmental Investigation Agency and Wildlife Justice Commission.

CITES should also ask the World Health Organization to qualify its recent recognition of traditional medicine as a valid medical practice to make clear that its approval does not extend to the use of endangered-animal parts – including tiger bone.

For their part, all CITES parties must ensure they enforce strong laws pertaining to all tiger crime, including other countries with large captive tiger populations such as the Czech Republic, South Africa and the US. Where laws exist, they are often poorly enforced, with prosecutions extremely rare.

While progress has been made by some countries in securing wild tiger populations, the clock is ticking for the most storied and glorious of all the big cats. The promises made so proudly in St Petersburg must be kept before time runs out.