Where Did All the Tigers Go?
Sometime in November 2008 a female tiger was killed along the Laos Vietnam border. Her two small cubs were caught and sold in a nearby township to Vietnamese nationals. The tiger population for the whole of Laos is estimated at 20-30 of these large predator so this off take might have amounted to 10% of the total population.
In early December of 2008 I was filming with Spiegel TV in Boten, a casino enclave on the China Laos border, It is a town also well known for its illegal wildlife trade. While walking along the main road I noticed a Styrofoam box which was covered by a white rice sack and there was movement under the sack, I lifted it and found two baby clouded leopards. I took them out and played with them and we managed to film this setting for a few minutes before the owner appeared grabbed the cubs and threw them back in the box covered them up and carried the box away.
While filming, our guide/translator was approached by a lorry driver who had his vehicle parked nearby and had watched the scene. He came to tell us that if we were interested in wild cats and small cubs he knew a place where two small tigers were for sale. We got the details and then drove from the Luang Namtah area of Northern Laos for six hours to a village near, Pak Mong, Our guide/ translator then started a discussion with the woman whose contact details we had obtained in Boten and she turned out to be a relative of the beer lorry driver who had approached our guide. She told us that the cubs had been sold two days earlier to a Vietnamese national and that she had no information as to where they originally came from and where they were taken.
I did some research via contacts in Laos and Vietnam to establish if there were any indications where these cubs might have ended up. All I came up with was locations for tiger breeding farms, mostly in Central Vietnam, but no indication that anybody kept any records of tigers leaving or arriving. As such I sent our guide back a few weeks later to see if he could convince the lady to look in the part of the house the babies had been kept for some hair samples, for DNA analysis:
a) to be sure that indeed we were dealing with tigers and
b) to compare any DNA profile with that of any cubs of the same age group we might find in Vietnam.
He did not get any hair but more information about how much was paid for the two cubs: US 2000 each but no further indication where they ended up.
It is well known that the tigers in the known tiger farms are inbred, that subspecies of tigers have been mixed (even lions have been bred with tigers) and as such it would also have been very interesting to know if the buyer was aware that he was buying potentially very valuable genetic material and if the price reflected the fact that these were wild caught tigers.
I returned to the same household in 2009 for a short visit and again held a conversation via the translator and it now turned out that the wife of the lorry driver had played a key role in negotiating the sale of the two cubs and that they had come from an area very near to the Vietnam border. She called the driver who first approached us and who is based in Vientiane and he indicated that he would be happy to provide more background and show us where the tiger mother was poached. He needed to take several days off to organize such a journey and we would have to agree on a future date for such a trip.
We decided to plan such a trip for 2010. I returned with a camera man and we again met up with the driver who introduced us to the two hunters who agreed to take us to the area the tiger mother was killed. It was either a boat ride and a six to eight hour walk, or a car journey on a new road and then a four to five hour walk, We chose the second, We got to the end of a brand new road which supposedly is part of a German development project and will be a disaster for biodiversity conservation in this remote and very rugged part of Laos.
Despite the driver and the two hunters being well known in the village, the chiefs were in conflict over aspects of the road project and could not agree to let us walk off into the forest. In the end my satellite phone was used to call high level regional officials who pronounced that we were in a no go area for tourists and should not leave the village.
We spent the night but made no progress in getting permission to return any other way than by the same road we had come in on.
However the driver and hunters now felt bad about having promised to show us the hunting grounds and tell the story behind the two tiger cubs. So we arranged for a lengthy interview along the road and they suddenly became very forthcoming. We filmed them telling the following story:
A farmer, some 4-5 hours walk from the above village, had lost a cow to what was a big predator, most likely a tiger. He sent them a message saying the carcass was still fresh and the cat would come back and they could get it. They went off to buy explosives (dynamite) and a detonator from the road construction camp nearby.( As such German tax payers paid indirectly for having this tiger killed). They knew how to work it into a trip wire land mine and showed us how they constructed it (possibly left over know how from the Vietnam war when guerrilla war fare was conducted along this border line). A piece of bamboo is filled with the explosive and hidden along the trail. A detonator is placed next to it and then wires are strung across the path of the intended victim. The wires are tied to the terminal of two household batteries at the other end. There is a slip loop where the wire is exposed and when the wire across the path gets pulled this loop will descend down the other wire and hit another exposed piece. This will result in an electronic contact and the charge will go off. We filmed and photographed a demonstration.
After having arrived at the farmers village they tracked to the cow carcass and set up the trap. Th only concern was a passing villager might trigger it by accident. We learned that the rule is that the local chief must be informed so he can inform all the villagers. Killing tigers therefore, using this method, does not have to be done in secret. They blew up the mother within a day of setting up the mine. She had come back and had brought along her cubs to possibly feed on the carcass. They managed to catch the cubs and put them in bamboo cages they lashed together.
They butchered the mother and removed all her bones, claws and teeth, The meat they carried back to the village but none of the other villagers were informed since they were concerned about having to share the proceeds from the sale of the parts of the mother and cubs. They ate the meat quietly with their families. The cubs were then transported to the village where the aunt of the driver lived. The bones, being the most valuable part, were sold for some U$5000 to Vietnamese traders who regularly crossed the border along mountain trails in this area to buy up any wildlife on offer. They in turn had buyers of several well-known producers of tiger bone cake living in and around the town of Dien Bien Phu, a Vietnamese town near the Laos border.
At this time we also got the name of the two Vietnamese buyers – the main one having moved back to Vietnam after getting into a fight over a gambling debt with some local youths near the location where the baby tigers were originally kept. We were told where he and his brother, who also used to lived in Laos, came from and where they now lived in Vietnam. we were told the make of the car which had picked up the cubs, as well as the border post to the Thanh Hoa province which was used to transfer the babies into Vietnam and into a province which has several tiger farms.
But again no further details where the cubs might have ended up or how to get hold of the brothers.
The village chiefs where we spent the night also told us of an area near the border which was mostly savannah and which they said still held three or four tigers. They explained that the tigers no longer moved into the forest since they were easier to track there where mines could be set on specific animal tracks and that in the savannah they were much harder to track. They had considered burning the grass in the dry season to then pin down these last cats but they needed the grass to thatch their roofs. With the new road in place metal sheet roofing is arriving in the area on the back of pickup trucks. Soon will be no longer any need for the grass for roofing. Another unintended consequence of such an ill-conceived 'development project'.
During the demonstration of the setting up of the trap they also told us about another cat presently for sale. The description did not allow us to establish what type they were talking about, so we sent the driver off with a video camera to get some images ‘to show to some prospective buyers”. He did come back with footage of what seemed an adult golden cat chained by the neck in a small room, The material illustrates that this trade in high profile live animals is taking place pretty much on a daily basis. We now had the footage of the clouded leopard and of a golden cat but still none of any tigers.
Back in Luang Prabang, the main tourist destination in Laos, we filmed a very well made stone bust of a tiger outside a tracking company office marketing its tours under the name of Tiger Trails. Our guide and translator also told the story of him having been very proud to show tiger foot prints in his trekking area up to a few years ago, but that now there were no longer any foot prints and as such the assumption was that around his home area of Luang Namtah all the tigers had gone.
The camera man and guide/tracker then flew down to the Laotian capital Vientiane and from there drove to a well-known tiger farm to find out if they could get some images of captive tigers and possibly some more information where the two cubs could have ended up. They were told there was a diseases outbreak at the farm that had affected humans and animals and that all the keepers had required special vaccinations. As such there was no way they could get past the gate. This was interesting as we had documented another such outbreak at a bear bile farm in Boten, where we also filmed the original clouded leopard cubs. In that case horses had died, dogs from the bear farm had eaten the carcasses and had died and then the bears started dying. We filmed one which was close to death, having been thrown into the yard outside the main farm building.
We did report this to veterinarians and conservation NGOs in the region. We were informed that this most likely involved a nasty virus: either Nipa or Hendra which was known for cross species infections and could also affect humans. Essentially the evidence was such that the area should have been quarantined and the information passed on to the media. None of the parties we spoke to were willing to push the envelope and use this information and development to put pressure on the local administration to close down the bear farm and to change some of the habits concerning animal husbandry.
A few months later one of our Vietnamese investigators managed to get into a tiger farm in the center of Vietnam. The same story again: Tigers were dying regularly of what seemed to be some kind of lung infection. The owner was ready to sell all his remaining tigers at a knock down price and also the carcasses he had stored in a freezer. They were being sold whole and the buyers would use the bones to turn into tiger cake. The meat would end up being served at special tiger banquets – despite the fact that the cats might have died of a strain of bird flu or another transmissible virus.
In 2011 I was back in the area on another film shoot and decided to once again follow up on the tiger story. This time we were received at the household where the two tiger cubs had been kept, with a special ceremony and special blessings. We went back to the road head but there was no additional information. However we were planning to now travel overland into Vietnam and as such needed a Vietnamese speaking translator. Our guide recruited one from the same township which had been home to the Vietnamese nationals who bought the cubs in 2008. He also knew our driver and the hunters and it later turned out had been involved in animal trafficking in the past. He agreed to accompany us to Dien Bein Phu in Vietnam and a nearby village from which traders regularly crossed the border illegally to the village at the road head. He said the traders there might know something about the tiger mother which was most likely transported on this route to a prominent tiger cake dealer living just outside Dien Bien Phu.
After we left Laos there was some 5 kms of no man’s land before we got to the Vietnam border post, The immigration and customs officials were all out for lunch so we had some time to look around. I walked back along the main road and then followed a well-trodden path up a hill. At the top was a fenced off enclosure with two nasty guard dogs on the outside making it clear not to come any closer. I asked our guide and translator to find out the reason this establishment in no man’s land was there. He was told that the immigration/police/army were running a wildlife farm where they were breeding animals that they ‘confiscated from traffickers”. It was not the first, and turned out not to be the last time, that I came across evidence of the Vietnamese army/officials being very actively involved in the wildlife trade (once on an army camp to get clearance to go into the Vu Quang National Park I did some roaming around and came across a battery of cages holding Asian Black bears.
In the home village of our Vietnamese translator we met some of his family members. We now got his full story: He had fled to Laos after his brother was arrested for heroin trafficking and he was worried he would be next. His brother is now serving a 15 year sentence in a Hanoi jail. He got a new name and identity in Laos and this was the first time he had returned to Vietnam in seven years, using this new identity. This clearly illustrated that law enforcement is possible and is taken seriously when it comes to some crimes but that wildlife trading crimes are not among them.
In the afternoon he took us to the main wildlife dealer in the area who bought up most of the products coming across the border from Laos (but not live animals). He knew our translator and his relatives and it was clear that besides heroin they were, or had been, very active in wildlife trading and that the two activities often went hand in hand. The latest commodity being trafficked in quantity being rosewood.
He told us that nowadays he was no longer very active and mostly concentrated on his dealership in motorbikes. Tiger deliveries from Laos had become rare. He did show us some tiger teeth which were for sale and as we were leaving he pulled out an envelope with a sliced piece of rhino horn marked as weighing 86.7 grams. He said it had come from India via Burma and Laos and was worth U$ 3000.
We sent our Laos guide back the next morning with a hidden camera asking to buy some rhino horn for his sick father, The trader was much more accommodating without foreigners sitting in his shop and sawed off a piece of the rhino horn (which later turned out to be fake). At this point he also offered some tiger glue/cake, a reddish square block which in Vietnam seems to be the highest value product coming from tigers. He also showed him another lot of tiger teeth and then took the team back to the kitchen area where he was boiling down some tiger bones. The images also show a range of crates holding a range of other wildlife products as well as animal trophy heads hanging on the wall.
During a further follow up visit by a Vietnamese investigator from Hanoi, two similar interviews were conducted with two more prominent wildlife product dealers in the Dien Bien Phu area. Both were also active in boiling down tiger bones providing a lot of very detailed information on hidden camera. The transcripts reveal a lot about the tiger bone trade in this part of the country. While in the past most tiger carcasses came from Laos and were those of wild tigers, the supply has now pretty much dried up. They have no problem determining the bones from wild tigers versus those of captive borne since the bones being delivered from wild tigers always have the kind of damage which comes with the above outlined hunting method of using explosives. Captive tigers are mostly bought as whole cut up carcasses.
One dealer explained how he determines the difference between lion bones and tiger bones (Laos now having become the biggest importer of lion bone from South Africa) and that lion bone is only 70% as effective as tiger bone but clearly there are now dealers trying to sell lion skeletons as those of tigers.
Nobody is able to tell when looking at a tiger cake piece if it is real or if it consists of other bone material or no bone at all. It all seems to depend on the reputation of the dealers with one of them sealing a paper base to one side of the cake to give it a distinctive marking. As we did with some rhino horn samples, we will also try to get a DNA analysis done of any of the small samples we acquired. The chance is very high that they are all fake including bones from a wide range of species. Maybe some selected long term customers end up with the real product but any newcomer walking in off the street is most likely being taken for a ride as we also established with the rhino horn trade.
Occasionally some loyal customer will bring a whole tiger carcass or set of bones for a dealer to boil down and they admit that most of these tigers now come from farms, mostly in the Central region of Vietnam. Some of the operators of these farms have also started to boil down tiger skeletons themselves to cut out the middle men. Captive bred tigers now seems widely available live or dead, The controls of private collections, zoos, safari parks etc in the region do not include regular audits with micro chipping of every tiger born. Beating whatever control system exists seems the national sport of the tiger farmers in the region.
At the end of one of the film shoots in Laos and Vietnam we visited a tiger/tourist facility outside Chiang Mai in Thailand. Tigers were well kept (they are of course the main asset) and tourists were allowed to interact with them and have their pictures taken - as is now happening at a range of such facilities. The cost to play with baby tigers is higher than the cost of having the picture taken with an adult. Babies are in demand in the tourist trade. So active breeding is a must. When we asked, one of the keepers told us they had 42 tigers at the facility and they bred about 40 a year. My next question was “Where do these tigers go if you double your population annually?" "Oh, we give them to zoos!”. There is a very high chance that many of the tigers that thousands of well-meaning tourists have been petting are ending up as bone products, with teeth and claws hanging from the neck of some society player wanting to show off.
International borders and CITES in this context do not seem to be considered a major obstacle. Tiger carcasses and live tigers are regularly found being transported in vehicles with the drivers claiming that all they knew and were doing was delivering a cargo. Safari Parks are springing up all over the region and clearly many of the owners look for two income streams. One from selling tickets to visitors and the other to breed valuable species and then sell them out the back door.
When these dealers talk about tigers they do not talk about a large male or about a small female. They talk about an 18 kg tiger or a 12 kg tiger and this does not refer to the weight of the cat but the weight of bones a carcass yields. They confirmed to our investigator on hidden camera that generally a kilo of bone yields 210 grams of extract for the cake. The bones are boiled over 5 days and combined with bones of goats and herbs and according to one dealer he adds opium as well. What is left at the end of 5 days of boiling is essentially chalky pieces of bone. The cake material is then dried in a special oven and there are arguments about the content of water in the cake and some dealers selling wet cakes versus others selling dry cake. A standard piece of cake weighs 100grs and is sold for VND 20-26 million (U$ 2000 –U$ 2300). We found some openly for sale in hotel shops.
Pieces of cake are then cut off and allowed to melt away under or on top the tongue or added in powder form to rice wine and then served as tiger wine. Tiger bone is said to be effective when treating a range of medical issues from nausea to malaria, abdominal pain, rabies, hemorrhoids etc. One dealer told our investigator:
Investigator - So you mean it is because of using tiger cake wine regularly your power of sex is amazing
Dealer - I can make love 40-45 times a month without getting exhausted.
Investigator - So you mean thanks to tiger cake.
Dealer - Yeah, nothing is better than this for staying longer when making love.
All of these negotiations, in some of which we participated as ‘interested foreign tourists’, were conducted in the open. None of the dealers looked over their shoulders, worried about any kind of third party interest or law enforcement being an issue.
Visiting Vietnamese web sites our investigator found a range of parties offering tiger cake and other tiger products. Most provided their phone numbers and when he called the story was mostly the same: The party selling it had inherited it from the father or grandfather and now suddenly needed cash for an emergency. We heard similar stories when calling sellers of rhino horn. The message seems to be that the older the item in question is, the better the chance it is real and not some recently produced fake.
For me the moral of the story is that a convicted heroin dealer is taken and dumped in a high security prison for 15 years, while well known traffickers of illegal wildlife products happily brag about their high profile clients to third parties which they have only just met.
As long as these are the standards of law enforcement and political will when relating to wildlife crimes in the South East Asia region, there is no hope. The new affluence in places like Vietnam means rare and costly pieces of wildlife become sought after lifestyle products. After the Mercedes in the garage and the golden Rolex on the wrist, serving friends tiger wine or pleasing an important business partner with a tiger bone cake becomes a way to prove that an individual has 'arrived' or should be given a certain contract.
At present the last wild tigers roaming the region are being wiped out. The last rhino went in 2009 and now the African rhinos are threatened by these new demand characteristics. Lion bones are now imported in quantity into Laos by a well-known dealer trading in pretty much every profitable wildlife product under the sun, and will in due course put pressure on the fast declining wild lion populations. As the trade of fake products illustrates the demand is much higher than what can possibly be offered through legal or semi legal channels. Farming species like rhino or tigers to satisfy this market is one option. With rhino the animal can be dehorned without it being killed. With lion and tiger bones the story is different. Plus of course these predators along with the rhino or elephant are all charismatic flagship species on the way out and the use or loose debate is no longer really applicable. In case of the tiger they have to be considered pretty much lost throughout SE Asia. The onces in these breeding centers and safari parks are mere gravestones to them and the wilderness which should be part of them.
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