Tigers at a Crossroads

By Robert Pickles, Ph.D.
Lead, Counter-Wildlife Crime Research & Analytics


End of the Pirate Era 

The Sundarbans is a vast delta where the Ganges River empties into the Bay of Bengal. Low-lying forested islands provide a rich ecosystem for wildlife and protect communities on the mainland from devastating cyclones. Tigers once thrived here, feasting on the dense herds of chital deer. Until the early 2000s, entering the Sundarbans was risky, as Sundarbans tigers often came into conflict with fishermen and honey collectors who made a living from the forest’s resources.

Sundarbans waterway

In the early 2000s, Bangladesh’s rising population and the increasing impact of climate change on the coastal communities began to collide with the Sundarbans tiger. As coastal erosion, salination, flooding and typhoon devastation increased, more people entered the Sundarbans to harvest resources. Gangs formed and took advantage of resource collectors. They operated extortion rackets, taxing resource harvesters. Harvesters who didn’t pay faced enormous risks, with some reports of kidnapping by heavily armed gangs and ransoms until the victims’ families could pay. At their peak in 2014, reports suggest more than 30 pirate gangs were controlling the Sundarbans. While racketeering was their primary income source, seven pirate groups began poaching tigers.

However, the Government of Bangladesh took a rapid course of action. Pirates who surrendered their weapons were granted amnesty and rehabilitated back into society. At the same time, the Rapid Action Battalion and Coastguard conducted operations in the Sundarbans, targeting pirate gangs that would not comply. The strategy was extremely successful, and by 2018, the Government of Bangladesh declared that pirates were no longer active in the Sundarbans. 

At the time, we thought this was tremendous news for tigers. Disrupting the dominant tiger poaching group should have allowed the dwindling tiger population space to recover. But it didn’t — poaching continued. So, what was going on? 

Dr. Nasir Uddin, Counter Wildlife Trafficking Program Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Justice, spent months trying to answer this question. By interviewing 280 people, including tiger poachers and pirates, we learned that while the pirates who had controlled the tiger poaching ceased to operate, demand for tiger products had risen. Traders had responded by forming specialist tiger poaching teams, shortening their supply chains and increasing efficiency and income. At the same time, with the threat from the pirates of extortion and kidnapping gone, deer poachers and fishermen started opportunistically poaching tigers. Within a few years, the tiger poaching situation had changed from being dominated by seven pirate groups to a mixture of 32 specialist tiger poaching groups — an estimated 341 people who engaged in poaching Sundarbans tigers. 

"Within a few years, the tiger poaching situation had changed from being dominated by seven pirate groups to a mixture of 32 specialist tiger poaching groups with other opportunists and traditional hunters, with an estimated 341 people who engage in poaching Sundarbans tigers."

The situation had become more complex. The opportunities that allowed tiger poaching to occur had not been removed. Poison was still readily available and cheap; a poaching team could enter the Sundarbans with a low risk of being caught and there was a growing market to which to sell the products. 

New Consumers, New Markets 

Bangladesh is now playing a far more prominent role in the tiger trade than previously recognized. Interviewees described a growing domestic market among Bangladesh’s wealthy citizens, who regularly drink tiger bone powder tonic. In addition to the Sundarbans, the Bangladesh market was being supplied by tiger populations in northeast India and Myanmar.

Tiger trafficking locations

Bangladesh’s rapid growth in the last decade has led to changes in tiger consumption habits and markets. Tiger products have been featured in Bangladesh's traditional medicine for centuries, but consumers can now afford to purchase more for prestige and status.    

But where Bangladesh was exporting to was particularly striking. From cross-checked interviewees, we learned that Bangladesh lay at the center of a global trade network, exporting tiger products to 15 countries. While it was unclear who the consumers were in most places, in the U.K., Germany and Qatar, the consumers were described as Bangladeshi expatriates. 

"Bangladesh now exports tiger products to 15 countries, including seven G20 nations, notably the U.K., Germany, Australia and Japan."

Bangladesh to other country, tiger product exports

Laundered Alive 

A further surprise was in store. Bangladeshi tiger product exporters were often licensed wildlife traders, and there had been several unusual seizures of live wild cats. Once again, wealthy private individuals were described as the main consumers, with wild cats sold as pets or to private menageries. Many interviewees described the forging of CITES permits, a technique used by legal importers to import live felids to Bangladesh and launder illegal wild cats.

Map of tiger poaching exports

Colliding Harms 

We can lose sight of the people involved when fixated on the illegal wildlife trade, but COVID-19 taught us a valuable lesson about how interconnected human and wildlife health are. In many cases, some of society's most vulnerable and disadvantaged members are at the forefront and often bear the costs.  

This problem cannot be divorced from the inextricable link between human and wildlife health. Bangladesh is one of the countries most at risk from climate change. Rising seas and cyclones eat away farmland, destroying property and livelihoods. Many people find themselves having to decide between joining the exodus migrating to the megacity of Dhaka or making a living from the wildlife in the Sundarbans, whether legal or not.  

One hunter explained that poaching a tiger was a “life-changing event,” a windfall worth 13 years of the average salary in the Sundarbans. It's not necessarily poverty that drives wildlife crime, but purchasing power: the connection of people who have large sums at their disposal with those who have nothing.  

"One hunter explained that bagging a tiger was a “life-changing event,” a windfall worth 13 years of the average salary in the Sundarbans."

The Choices and Challenges Ahead

Looking ahead, Bangladesh lies at a crossroads. As we accelerate towards 1.5°C of warming, the challenges over the next decade in providing jobs, infrastructure and healthcare for 169 million Bangladeshi citizens will be formidable. 

However, the government’s successful counter-pirate campaign offers a blueprint for how concerted national action against a specific problem can work. In addition, coastal adaptation work in the Sundarbans is starting to show promise in finding alternative livelihoods, transitioning rice farmers into fish farming. 

We found clear opportunities to intervene and reduce the trade in tigers, but it requires focus, hard choices and spotting where there are cascading benefits to both people and wild cats, including building resilient local communities. This trilogy of publications provides clarification of the nature of trafficking problems, as well as intervention options for turning the tide for humans and tigers in a climate-risk environment.

Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade.