Topic Area: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Bengal Tiger
Geographic Area: India
Focal Question: Have the conservation attempts by CITES been successful in preventing the extinction of the Bengal Tiger in India?
 (1) Hemley, Ginette, ed. “International Wildlife Trade: A CITIES Sourcebook”
Island Press, Washington D.C.  1994

 (2) ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Michael “Assessing CITES: Four Case Studies”, Case Study 3: Tigers, In Endangered Species Threatened Convention; The Past, Present and Future of CITIES. J. Hutton and B. Dickson, eds. Earthscan Publications, London. 2000.

(3) Linden. Eugene “Tigers on the Brink”, Time Magazine, 143(13) p.44.  3/28/94

(4) Mickleburgh, Simon “CITIES: what role for science?” Oryx, 34(4) p.241-242. 2000.

(5) Woods, Michael “Tiger Economies”, Geographical Magazine, 69(1) p.38.  Jan. 1997

Reviewer: Eliza Schnitzer, Colby College '02


Despite its status as the largest member of the cat family, the tiger is the most threatened of the world’s carnivores. At the turn of the century, roughly 100,000 of these beautiful felines roamed the area from Turkey to Eastern-Russia and as far down as the Indonesian Islands. Today, however, only between 5,000-7,400 tigers are left, inhabiting only 14 Asian range states (Woods, 1997).  India is the home of about 60% of the world’s remaining tigers, and as a result, it is an extremely crucial geographic area in the fight for tiger survival (Linden, 1994). 


Tiger survival is threatened primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with humans and poaching. Habitat loss is the most significant and long-term threat, while the latter two issues represent more immediate concerns (Hemley, 1994).  Habitat loss and human conflict become extremely central issues in India where conservation efforts have been successful and as a result the growing tiger population encroaches on human civilization.  It becomes a two-sided problem in such areas where population continues to increase at a rapid pace (Linden, 1994). Poaching and trade are driven by the demand for traditional Chinese medicines and tiger skins.  Many Asian cultures have an ingrained belief that the tiger is a potent source of healing power. Tiger bone and other parts of the animal are thought to cure rheumatism, enhance longevity, provide strength, calm convulsions, and treat impotence. With a rise in wealth in Asian countries in recent years, the demand for these expensive items has surged (Linden, 1994). 


Due to the existence of multiple threats, tiger conservation must have two goals: the effective ban of illegal trade and therefore the end of poaching, and habitat preservation. The primary tiger conservation effort is the CITES Appendix 1 listing of all five remaining subspecies of tigers.  This measure bans all commercial trade in the animal and its parts.  Unfortunately, however, this conservation effort by CITES has proved to be ineffective at reviving the tiger population, in part because it does not make any effort towards conserving habitat and prey and in part because it does not alter consumer demand and therefore the illegal trade persists (‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2000). 


Given their disproportionate tiger population, it is not surprising that India has taken the most effective steps towards tiger conservation.  In the 1970s, conservationists raised awareness about the declining Bengal tiger populations. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger in 1972, backed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) campaign “Operation Tiger”(Linden, 1994).  The goal of the project was to create multiple tiger reserves whose purpose was to protect not only the tiger but also the animal’s habitat and prey.  By the 1980s, the tiger populations had grown substantially, and the project was viewed as a success. Unfortunately, despite these concerted efforts, in the late 1980s, poaching began to rise as the demand for tiger bone increased due to a rise in personal income in Asian countries and a decrease in supply. This reduction in supply was largely attributable to a dwindling bone surplus in China that existed because the Chinese had killed thousands of tigers in the 1980’s on the grounds that the animals endangered human populations.  This killing spree led to a stockpile of tiger bone large enough to satisfy the medicine market for years (Linden, 1994).


The demand for tiger parts has proved to be particularly hard to control.  While the desire for skins was depressed through environmentalist pressure on the fashion industry, the growing market for bone used for medicinal purposes has defied all similar attempts to stifle demand. Part of the reason for this difficulty is because the demand for tiger bone is centered in China, Korea, and Taiwan, countries that are largely out of range of Western publicity influences (Linden, 1994).  A larger component, however, is the fact that traditional Chinese medicine is an integral part of local culture, and is therefore extremely hard to combat, especially from the outside.  In short, the control of the demand for tiger bone is out of the reach of political pressure, public opinion, or even local enforcement (Linden, 1994).  In fact, many of the officials and politicians in these areas reassure the West that they are actively trying to join in the conservation effort, while showing little action at home (Hemley, 1994).    


It is clear that a decrease in demand is the key to alleviating the stress currently on the tiger. With the end of poaching will come the rebuilding of the populations and the increased success of the tiger reserves. Unfortunately, while demand is still high, and rising human populations are still pressuring the current tiger’s habitat, CITES can do little to prevent the extinction of the tiger. This is particularly true because some of the tiger trade is domestic (within tiger range states) and therefore CITES, being an international trade convention, has no tools with which to combat its existence (‘t Sas-Rolfes, 2000).  It was estimated in 1997, that unless major changes took place immediately, the tiger was sure to be extinct within a decade (Woods, 1997).  Unfortunately, it seems that we may have passed that threshold. Furthermore, when the market for tiger parts run out of supplies, this problem is likely to start affecting felines in other areas of the world, such as the snow leopard and the golden cat (Linden, 1994).


What is apparent from this analysis is that CITES, while a crucial tool in protecting the endangered flora and fauna of the world, has its limitations and unfortunately may not be always be able to prevent extinction.  In the case of the tiger, CITES can only take us so far on the road to conservation.  In the end, it is the attitudes towards wildlife trade that must be altered (Mickleburgh, 2000).