Tiger poachers take to the train to avoid detection

Poaching is a huge problem in the world today and one of the greatest threats to endangered species. Tigers are common targets for poaching due to the demand for their striking skins and body parts such as bones in traditional Chinese medicines. The tiger population has suffered so much that even optimistic estimates put the numbers at as little as 3200 individuals left in the wild, half of these live in India.

Models suggest that the tigers that remain may not be equipped to survive under poaching pressure for much longer. Tiger poaching has been a problem for many decades but since 2000 it has become much more of an organised wildlife crime, demonstrated by the increase in the magnitude of seizures. In the 1970s a single seizure would typically be less than 10 tiger skins and less than 50 leopard skins; in 2003 this had escalated to the biggest seizure ever recorded of 31 tiger skins, 581 leopard skins and 778 otter skins.

Illegal trafficking seizure from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh

Illegal trafficking seizure from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh

Now, after a study by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), investigating a huge 40 years’ worth of data, we can pinpoint trafficking hotspots and have been able to show that a huge majority of the movement of illegal tiger parts takes place on trains.

Only 56 of the 73 districts in India with active tiger trading are close to tiger habitats, which raised the question how the other 17 districts were getting access to these parts. It seems trains are the go to form of transportation for smuggling by poaching gangs, as well as having larger crowds to hide in they are less prone to random security checks than roads and they provide direct access to areas across the country including the Nepalese border which is thought to be the biggest hotspot for moving tiger parts across border into China.

Statistical analysis revealed the closer a trading hotspot to a railway the less likely tiger crime discontinuation is. A big problem for controlling wildlife crime is the difficulties with detection. More intelligence-led enforcement, use of advanced technologies and partnerships with communities are steps in the right direction and some of the main focuses of the WPSI. Even with the difficulties in tracking tiger poaching, this new insight into trading routes could help direct enforcement efforts and hopefully smugglers will find it harder to evade detection.

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Madeleine Berry

Wildlife enthusiast and recent Biology graduate of Queen Mary, University of London.

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