Wild Tiger leads new study that reveals the United States has played a substantial role in tiger trafficking
"People in the US have this false notion that the illegal trade in tiger parts is half a world away. In reality, we in the US are involved in and driving a large portion of the illegal trade. This research is a step to better understand the role of the US in the global tiger trade, which will improve policy and enforcement and direct future research efforts." - Sarika Khanwilkar
While the US is a major supporter of tiger conservation efforts worldwide, its role in trafficking of illegal tiger parts is substantial. This is the conclusion of a recently published study Patterns of illegal and legal tiger parts entering the United States over a decade (2003 – 2012) published by Sarika Khanwilkar, Founder of Wild Tiger, National Geographic Explorer, PhD candidate at Columbia University, Monique Sosnowski, PhD candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Sharon Guynup, a journalist, National Geographic Explorer and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The study is in Conservation Science and Practice, which publishes solutions-oriented and science-based conservation research. Email email@example.com to get a PDF of the paper.
At the end of April, the pandemic became an emerging crisis across India. In central India, rural communities already experiencing health and socioeconomic disparities were hit hard by the economic repercussions of work restrictions to daily wage jobs that they depend on.
The Last Wilderness Foundation, an Indian-based Non-Governmental Organization, works with communities, who are largely Indigenous, around Panna, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha Tiger Reserves in central India. As the crisis in India expanded, they mobilized their team to provide essential items to communities such as food and face masks. We knew we had to help. In an impromptu fashion, Sarika asked her social media followers to donate to the cause.
In less than a week, US donors gave over $3,000 to help support the Last Wilderness Foundation's (LWF) work to aid communities during the covid-19 crisis. On May 8th, Sarika and Bhavna Menon, a Program Manager at LWF, spoke on Instagram Live about the impact of those donations and why supporting communities and working with people is helping wildlife. Watch the conversation at this link.
One of the most memorable parts of the conversation was when Bhavna said that people in these communities were not so scared of dying of the virus; they were scared of starvation.
Please keep India in your heart and mind during this difficult time.
Investing in and understanding communities that live in and around central India's forests are important for creating a future where people and wildlife can coexist. As apart of Sarika's PhD work, she published her first, first-author peer review paper entitled Firewood, forests, and fringe populations: Exploring the inequitable socioeconomic dimensions of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) adoption in India in the journal of Energy Research and Social Science.
Firewood is the primary cooking fuel for many households in central India. This can be problematic because of the household air pollution caused by burning firewood indoors and burdens women and children in particular, who are in charge of cooking and collecting firewood. Finally, firewood collection can be a dangerous task when entering forests with wild animals such as tigers or leopards, and impacts forest health. The government has provided LPG to poor households since 2016, through a program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yoyjana, which is meant to address some of the health impacts of using firewood for cooking.
Sarika, along with her co-authors, used social survey data collected in 2018 from 4,994 households living within 500 villages living in forested regions of central India, along with a satellite-derived measure of forest availability to investigate cooking fuel use. They documented LPG adoption, the timing of this adoption, pre or post-2016, and patterns of firewood collection. The probability of cooking with LPG was lowest for marginalized social groups. Households recently adopting LPG, likely through the government scheme, were poorer, more socially marginalized, less educated, and have more forest available nearby than their early adopter counterparts. While 90% of LPG-using households continue to use firewood, households that have owned LPG for more years report spending less time collecting firewood, indicating a waning reliance on firewood over time. Policies targeting communities with marginalized social groups living near forest can further accelerate LPG adoption and displace firewood use. Despite overall growth in LPG use, disparities in access to clean cooking fuels remain between socioeconomic groups in India.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to access a PDF version of the paper.
Last December, we were hopeful that the Big Cat Public Safety Act (Big Cat Act) was close to becoming a federal law because it had passed the House. Unfortunately, the bill was not voted on by the Senate before the congressional session came to an end. Each congressional session lasts 2 years and once it ends, and if a bill hasn't been voted into law by that time, the process to become a law restarts.
The Big Cat Act (H.R. 263 of the 117th Congress) was introduced in the House in early January of 2021. This is the first step in adopting this important federal legislation.
For years, the Big Cat Public Safety Act (Big Cat Act) waited for action in the US Congress while the number of captive tigers in the US continued to proliferate, their exact numbers and whereabouts unknown. The Big Cat Act is important because it would end the practice of cub petting and begin the process of overseeing captive tiger ownership and breeding. On December 3rd, the Big Cat Act (H.R. 1380 of the 116th Congress) passed the House, and we are now hoping that the Senate will vote on this issue before the end of the year.
Until Wild Tiger’s advocacy work on the Big Cat Act, people from places where tigers are wild were absent from discussions about the need to address the US tiger crisis. However, regulating captive tigers in an international issue. Wild tigers from Tiger Range Countries are threatened with poaching, done to supply parts to the illegal wildlife market. Poaching of wild tigers is stimulated by the demand market for tiger parts, that is sustained by parts from captive born tigers. Wild Tiger obtained almost 2,000 signatures of people from India in a letter to Congress which asked the US to adopt the Big Cat Act as a law. We presented the petition, Indians against illegitimate tiger breeding and ownership in the US, to members of Congress.
If the Big Cat Act becomes a federal law, the US will be a leader in captive tiger regulation. Next, Tiger Range Countries will need to continue to apply pressure to other countries where captive tigers require further regulation.
Exactly one year ago, at the 2019 Student Conference on Conservation Science-New York at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarika and current research collaborator Monique Sosnowski met. This year, Sarika shared their work at the same conference.
Monique is an environmental criminologist, and it was her presentation on this topic that interested Sarika and sparked conversations about wildlife trafficking between the two. They each shared interest in the trafficking of tiger parts, and the role that the United States (US) plays in this global issue. While habitat loss has played a major role in reducing tiger populations since the 1970's, poaching has and continues to be a primary threat to the tiger's future. Demand for tiger parts drives tiger poaching, and identifying patterns of trade and trade routes is an important area of research to inform science-driven anti-trafficking interventions. Most research on tiger trafficking has focused on Asia and little is known about tiger parts entering the US, which is a major market for wildlife products. Sarika and Monique decided to join forces, combining their expertise in wildlife trafficking and tiger conservation, in their project 'A decade of illegal and legal tiger parts entering the US.' This conference was an opportunity to share their findings and the co-authors aim to get this research published in a peer-review journal soon. We look forward to sharing more details.
Graphic by Pooja Gupta, https://www.poojaslaboratory.com/
September 26th was National Public Lands Day. To celebrate, Sarika joined the Student Conservation Association (SCA) as an alumni mentor during a virtual day of service. The SCA said in a Facebook post "some of the top themes from our alumni mentorship lunch focused on opportunities and the environment. Thank you to our experts for providing helpful feedback and career building tips for our attendees!"
Sarika focused on her experience in educating people in the US and India on issues related to tiger conservation in central India with Wild Tiger.
On July 31st, Sarika presented "species conservation: tigers in India and the US" as apart of a series of events hosted by the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Sarika is an alumni of the organization, completing a year-long Americorp internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015, and has stayed active in many SCA events.
In the presentation, Sarika clarified what species conservation is, and explained why the tiger is the focus of many conservation efforts. She debunked myths and gave examples of what tiger conservation is and is not. For example, organizations working on securing habitat with local communities in areas where tigers live is legitimate tiger conservation. On the other hand, the private and commercial breeding of tigers in captivity in the US is not tiger conservation.
Here are some of the questions (with Sarika's answers) we got at the end of the presentation.
Do you think Joe Exotic was good or bad for this movement (conserving tigers)?
Joe Exotic was bad for tiger conservation. He killed tigers in his possession and trafficked tigers all over the United States, actions that he was federally charged for and put him in prison. In addition, he misled people by making them believe that breeding tigers in his roadside zoo was equivalent to saving tigers. I am unsure whether or not his fame from Tiger King is good or bad from tiger conservation. On one hand, the show did not reveal the dark truth behind his actions and made him into a kind of hero. The series was not based on fact. On the other hand, the popularity of the show might bring the issues of captive tigers into the spotlight and help us pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
What is one question that you would like to ask Joe Exotic about his “work” with tigers?
There are two things I would like to learn from Joe Exotic: 1) For tigers that you killed or died in your possession, where did the remains go, and did you ever sell the tiger parts to somebody? 2) Have you ever seen a tiger in the wild and heard what tiger conservation is from somebody who is from a tiger range country?
Do you think the US government should rescind the permit for tiger cubs in order to support conservation efforts? Is that addressed in the Big Cat legislation?
The Big Cat Public Safety Act would federally ban cub petting. This is absolutely necessary to support tiger conservation efforts. If a federal ban cannot be passed, we must work state by state to ban cub petting and end the cycle of illegitimate tigers in America.
What has been the most challenging case that you have encountered in regards towards protecting tigers.
Some of the most challenging things about protecting tigers is that many people who work for tiger conservation are trained in biology and wildlife yet, we need people from a large variety of more social-oriented backgrounds such as healthcare, policy, and economics. For example, when people, largely women, are collecting firewood in the forest, they are at a high risk of getting attacked by tigers and other wildlife. Firewood collection is necessary because it is the fuel used to heat and cook food. People are also at a high risk of wildlife attacks when they are defecating outside, which occurs in households that do not have toilets. The access to alternative cooking fuel and toilets greatly impacts the relationship that local people have with tigers and other wildlife. Protecting tigers is more than counting tigers and securing their habitat.
Does the UN do any work to support wild tiger conservation efforts?
Absolutely. The UN ensures that tiger conservation remains a priority at high levels of governance. Although the UN does not directly work on-the-ground, they ensure international funding mechanisms that make grassroots work possible and create policy incentives for various countries.
Happy Global Tiger Day! Below are three things you can do right now to save wild tigers:
1. Support grassroots organizations working in tiger habitat. I have spent the last 5 years working with and getting to know the local organizations doing the most impactful work in central India. Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, the Last Wilderness Foundation, and the Satpuda Foundation all employ and empower local people, work 24/7, on-the-ground in and around Tiger Reserves, and work with India’s government. Donations to these organizations do not go towards marketing schemes and other overhead expenses that many international organizations have. If you are based in the US and are interested in supporting these organizations, get in touch with us at email@example.com.
2. Support US legislation such as the Big Cat Public Safety Act and other bills that provide funds to international wildlife conservation. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is likely to be voted on later this year. If you are in the US, contact your national government representatives to tell them to adopt the Act as a law to address the US captive tiger crisis. If you are in India, sign this petition: https://change.org/indiansforthebigcatpublicsafetyact.
3. Have an active voice in environmental legislation in India. Until August 11, 2020, the public can comment on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020. There are several reasons that the draft EIA 2020 is bad for tigers and their habitat, and the environment and democracy in general. For example, development projects such as mining can start construction before obtaining environmental clearance. In addition, public input on several types of development projects would be made impossible. For the past couple of weeks, the government has attempted to censor Indian citizens and organizations from campaigning against the draft EIA 2020. We need to show international solidarity on this issue. You can watch this video on Mongabay India for more information: india.mongabay.com/2020/06/video-how-does-the-new-draft-eia-affect-the-environment-and-me/. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Withdraw draft EIA 2020” and tell them that a stronger environmental law is needed to protect tigers and to safeguard our own health.
Bi-monthly updates from the Wild Tiger team with occasional guest blog posts and personal field updates from Sarika Khanwilkar.