A Potential Decline In The Wild Cat Trade
According to recent studies, many if not most species of large wild cats are threatened or endangered due to a combination of habitat loss, hunting, poaching, or illegal trade. While some estimates indicate that there were about 100,000 tigers at the end of the 19th century, by the late 1990s that number had declined dramatically to between 5,000 and 7,000 tigers. Current estimates for tigers in the wild put the number even lower, at just 3,000 individuals left in the world. Tiger poaching and trade has been relatively well studied; it is widely known that the trade is driven by the use of tiger parts as “trophies, aphrodisiacs or as talismans.” As the trade in tigers and their body parts slows due to the declining population, there is a worry that other large cats may be used as replacement species for these types of products.
In this study, researchers examined the trade of large cats in Myanmar, known to be a key location in the wild cat trade. As a place where few quantitative studies have been carried out — and where many cat parts are available openly for sale — the survey was meant to help understand how trade may be increasing or decreasing in two small towns (Tachilek and Mong La) that border both Thailand and China. Notably, the surveys were conducted in different years from 1998 to 2014. The study is also of particular interest because of the political situation in Myanmar, which the researchers describe as “a challenging country to work in, especially when documenting illicit activities.”
The surveys reveal that the dynamics in each town are complicated and are very much dependent on how the country that borders it enforces its rules. The authors note that enforcement in both Tachilek and Mong La appears to be “totally absent.” They say that the decrease of availability of cat parts in Tachilek could be because of increased enforcement in Thailand and the increase in trade in Mong La may be linked to an increase in buying power in China. Further to this, they observed a “shift in clientele” in Tachilek, where “over the last decade at least,” an increasing number of buses from nearby Thailand have been bringing “large crowds wanting to buy cheap clothing across the border.” Whether these crowds just don’t want tiger or cat parts or they can’t afford them is not entirely clear.
For animal advocates, one of the most important takeaways is in the methodology of the study: because of the difficulty in documenting conditions in a country under a military regime, the sample can only ever be opportunistic. In the same way that animal advocates often need undercover investigators to obtain footage and photos from farms and other places, getting these statistics requires researchers who are willing to take the risk. The more substantive takeaway, unfortunately, is that even though tigers, leopards and clouded leopards are all “totally protected in Myanmar and included on Appendix I of CITES,” they were openly for sale in both villages, which is a “clear impediment to their conservation.”
On a more encouraging note, the researchers did not find “any evidence that… smaller cats are used as replacements for larger cats. When numbers of the largest cat, the tiger, go down, so do the numbers of all cats, irrespective of size.” If advocates can work to ameliorate the “egregious” lack of enforcement regarding the trade in big cat parts, it may also improve the situation for wild cats in general.