Last month forest rangers in India arrested a 21-year-old engineering student and his friend who had been caught carrying a tiger skin that they intended to sell for nearly $25,000. A few days earlier Indonesian police raided the homes of two suspected wildlife traffickers, where they confiscated a small menagerie of live animals, a number of wildlife parts and a stuffed Sumatran tiger. Around the same time police in Vietnam aborted their chase of a truckload of smugglers after the suspects threw two live, drugged tigers out of the back of the vehicle.
The smugglers in that third case still haven't been found, although the men in the earlier cases are all awaiting trial. But they were just the middlemen. In a world where a live animal or a body part can change hands several times as it is smuggled and traded, tracking down and prosecuting the people who actually killed these tigers remains next to impossible. It's also hard to know whether any confiscated tiger skins were from animals born in (and stolen from) the wild or they were raised in captivity, such as on one of the numerous tiger farms in China, Thailand, Vietnam or Laos.
But maybe that won't always be the case. Last week the member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) met in Geneva and discussed a broad range of issues related to wildlife trade—one of which could lead to a better way to track down the people responsible for killing and initially smuggling tigers. As written up in the report of the Working Group on Asian Big Cats (pdf), the 180 nations which have signed on to CITES will now be encouraged "to share images of seized tiger skins with range States with photographic identification databases so as to assist in the identification of the origin of the illegal specimen."
"This is really important," says Shruti Suresh, wildlife campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency in England, who attended the CITES meeting last week. "India really wanted to see this happen. They have a database of thousands of photographs of wild tigers, mostly taken through camera trapping." Because each tiger's stripes are as unique as fingerprints, seized skins could be compared with a database to hopefully determine where it came from. "If a skin is seized in China or Vietnam and they share that picture of that skin with India, for example, it could potentially map out where the skin came from and how it got there." With that piece of information in hand, law enforcement officials would find themselves one step closer to finding out who killed the tiger in the first place.
It may take some time for this international database to be created or for CITES nations to start sharing photos of seized skins, but a special working group has been set up to implement this month's recommendations over the course of the next year, when the next CITES meeting will be held. If everything comes together, Suresh suggests, "it could push countries to start doing things like this more often."
CITES is not alone in efforts like this. Databases already help to track elephant ivory and rhino horns, and later this year the Great Apes Survival Partnership hopes to launch a database to help fight illegal ape trafficking. Most of these efforts will not directly help endangered species while they are alive, but anything that increases the likelihood of poachers paying for their crimes may help to deincentivize the lucrative industry of illegal wildlife trafficking.
Photo: A tiger in India's Ranthambore National Park photographed by Björn Ognibeni. Used under Creative Commons license