- Previously a source country for live tigers and their parts, Bangladesh has transformed into both a consumer market and a global transit hub for the illegal trade, a new study shows.
- The shift is fueled by local demand from a growing elite, global connections, and cultural fascination with tiger products, and facilitated by improved transport infrastructure networks that have allowed two-way flow of tiger parts through Bangladesh’s airports, seaports and land border crossings.
- Despite some progress in curtailing tiger poaching and smuggling over the past two decades, enforcement remains weak and poaching continues, especially in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.
- Experts say there needs to be broader collaboration among state agencies, international organizations and other countries to combat wildlife trafficking more effectively.
DHAKA — Bangladesh’s strong economic growth over the past two decades has lifted millions of the country’s citizens out of poverty. It’s also led to a booming elite class — one with an increasingly voracious, and illicit, appetite for tiger parts.
Bangladesh is one of the range countries of the endangered Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), and while historically domestic poaching of the big cats for their body parts was driven by demand from overseas, today there’s a thriving local market fueling the illegal trade, according to a recent study.
“Historically, Bangladesh served as a major supplier of live tigers and body parts,” study lead author Nasir Uddin, from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, China, told Mongabay. “But recently, we’ve seen a concerning trend: a rise in domestic consumption of tiger parts among affluent individuals, both residents and foreign nationals based in Bangladesh.”
The study identifies “[e]lite Bangladeshis [as] the most important consumer group.” Their growing impact on the trade means Bangladesh is no longer just an exporting country for tiger parts, but also an importer, with tigers being poached in India and Myanmar to feed the demand in Bangladesh.
“Adding to the region’s vulnerability to tiger trafficking, the close socio-cultural ties between communities in Bangladesh and its neighbors play a significant role in the trade of tigers and their parts,” Uddin said.
The rapid expansion of international transport links has helped facilitate this smuggling, effectively connecting local traders to a global network of buyers and sellers. This has amplified the scale of the illegal trade and complicated efforts to dismantle it, the study says.
The research reveals that Bangladesh also supplies tiger parts to 15 countries, including those with a sizable Bangladeshi diaspora. India, China and Malaysia top the list, followed by nations like the U.K., Germany, Australia and Japan. The study found that tiger skins, bones, teeth and dried meat are the most sought-after products, often smuggled through Bangladesh’s airports, seaports and land border crossings.
There’s evidence that live tiger cubs are also being trafficked, according to a recent report by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC). It suggests that cubs fetch a higher price than adult tigers, ranging from $7,648 to $17,500 per cub (excluding delivery). In one case, traders offered to deliver a cub from Thailand to Bangladesh via air for an additional $1,000.
“The diversity of ethnic communities within Bangladesh, each with their own cultural and religious beliefs regarding animal parts, fuels the demand for this illegal trade,” he said. “Furthermore, Bangladesh’s limited resources and monitoring capacity compared to its neighboring countries make it an attractive transit point for international criminal gangs.”
A complex struggle for conservation
Bangladesh’s transition from being simply a source country for tiger parts to a trafficking destination is relatively recent. A 2022 report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitor, identified Bangladesh among the hotspots for seizures of tiger contraband over the past two decades.
Between January 2000 and June 2022, according to the report, there were 36 incidents of tiger seizures in Bangladesh, involving 50 tigers confiscated. During this period, just six people were jailed and four fined for their involvement in the trafficking.
The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, which Bangladesh shares with India, is a key tiger habitat. Pirate gangs dominated tiger poaching in the region until 2017, when the Bangladeshi government’s antipiracy campaign succeeded in breaking up the gangs. However, this success created a vacuum that was soon filled by dozens of specialist tiger-poaching teams, leaving the Sundarbans tigers still at risk.
“With the risk of extortion and robbery from pirates gone, these tiger-poaching groups increased the frequency of opportunistic and targeted tiger poaching in the forest,” Uddin said.
Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, the divisional forest officer overseeing the Sundarbans, said poaching in the Sundarbans has decreased significantly since the 2017 antipiracy crackdown. The TRAFFIC report supports this, reporting a 75% reduction in trafficking from 2018 to 2021 compared to the previous four years.
Concerted efforts imperative to safeguard Bengal tigers
Despite some progress, wildlife conservation remains a substantial challenge for Bangladesh, experts say. They emphasize the need for collaborative efforts among state agencies, international organizations, and other countries to combat wildlife trafficking effectively.
Regional and international collaboration is deemed imperative, said M.A. Aziz, a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka. He called for workshops, training and awareness campaigns for law enforcement agencies and officials at land border crossings, seaports and airports. He also underscored the need for Bangladesh to participate more actively in international forums with other tiger range countries as well as destination countries for tiger parts.
“Bangladesh should enhance its participation in international forums and take proactive measures to bridge the gap between the Forest Department and various state agencies, including the police, Rapid Action Battalion, border guard and coast guard,” Aziz said.
Patwary, the wildlife crime enforcement chief, agreed on the need for stronger collaboration with regional and international organizations, but cited budgetary constraints. He called for direct government funding to enhance law enforcement on the ground.
“Only a small number of individuals are engaged in these crimes, and eliminating them is feasible with good intentions,” Patwary said. “However, a significant issue is the incomplete integration of the WCCU with the Forest Department since its establishment in 2012.”
He pointed out that the WCCU doesn’t directly receive government funding. Instead, it operates with resources from various projects and donor groups. This limitation poses challenges in its administrative, legislative, and technological capabilities.
Bangladesh’s struggle against tiger trafficking serves as a strong reminder of the broader challenges in wildlife conservation, experts say. They note it will take concerted action from the government, international organizations and local communities to dismantle the intricate web of wildlife crime and protect the Bengal tiger from disappearing forever from the country.
Uddin, N., Enoch, S., Harihar, A., Pickles, R. S. A., Hughes, A. C. (2023). Tigers at a crossroads: Shedding light on the role of Bangladesh in the illegal trade of this iconic big cat. Conservation Science and Practice, 5(7). doi:10.1111/csp2.12952
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