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The brutal ‘industrial enterprise’ of black-market tiger trafficking

It’s estimated that there are fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild today, compared to roughly 100,000 in the early 1900s. More tigers now live in captivity than in the wild, and many of those live in so-called “tiger farms,” where they are bred, raised and slaughtered for their body parts. William Brangham talks to The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy, who visited such farms in Laos.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier this week, the United Nations warned that roughly one million of the world's species are on the verge of extinction, more than at any other time in human history.

    As William Brangham reports, one of those species is one of the most iconic animals on Earth, the tiger.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    It's estimated there are fewer than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild today, down from roughly 100,000 in the early 1900s. More tigers now live in captivity than in the wild, and many of those can be found in so-called tiger farms, where they are bred, raised and then slaughtered, sold for their skin and body parts on the black market.

    In a new investigative report for The Washington Post, Terrence McCoy traveled to Laos in Southeast Asia, and got an inside look at some of these farms, and the grisly trade that keeps them afloat.

    And Terrence joins me now.

    Welcome.

  • Terrence McCoy:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    It's really an incredible brutal and powerful piece of reporting that you have done about this market and the forces that are driving it.

    But can you just start off by telling us, what is driving this market? What do people want tiger parts for?

  • Terrence McCoy:

    I mean, that was the big question that we had when we first started off with this, was, what on earth do people want tigers for, one of the most iconic of species?

    And what we found was some of the qualities that make the tiger so iconic have also been its undoing, that because it's so strong, because it's so ferocious, it has become something of a medicine for a lot of folks in China, for traditional Chinese medicine, that they think that all the elements that make the tiger what it is can also be used to treat human ailments.

    And the other factor of this is because it's become something of a status symbol, that, if you are wealthy enough, you can actually wear tiger on you. It's a luxury item. So this has created a circumstance where people want it for both medicine and also just to show off their wealth.

  • William Brangham:

    And just for the record, it's — there is no medicinal benefit to eating or imbibing anything from a tiger.

  • Terrence McCoy:

    No, there's no medicinal benefit to this whatsoever.

    There have been rumors that they have medicinal elements going back 1,400 years, but clearly there's no medicinal benefit to that whatsoever.

  • William Brangham:

    Your report is largely — is also a profile of this man Karl Ammann, who you basically travel with all through Southeast Asia.

    He is this sort of striking, quixotic activist figure. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?

  • Terrence McCoy:

    As much as this story was a profile of the tiger trade and what's happening with the tiger, it's also a profile of obsession, and somebody becomes so consumed by their mission that that is all that they do.

    And Karl Ammann has become something of a Don Quixote figure in the conservation movement, just someone shouting into the wind. Today, there are lots of discussion about the mounting extinction rates. Karl's been talking about this for decades.

    And for decades, not many people have been listening to him. And now, finally, he's doing more investigations, that this is something that's happening in this world and this is something that we have to take note of.

  • William Brangham:

    You visit several of these tiger farms in the course of your reporting. Some of them are sort of small and look very ramshackle.

    Others are almost industrial scale in their size. I mean, you must have been shocked to see this kind of — this sort of farming of an animal like a tiger.

  • Terrence McCoy:

    Yes, the most amazing thing was that you would be driving down these roads in Laos that were rural, and, all of a sudden, you would come upon some gates, and beyond those gates was something of an industrial enterprise, that they could farm hundreds of tigers in these places.

    And then we'd have — we'd have a drone going over it. And inside that footage, you would see tigers as small as ants down there prowling around. And you can see just at that moment that this isn't like a kiddie operation. This is industrial, that we are creating — out of this tiger becomes a product along this assembly line.

  • William Brangham:

    The thing that also really comes through in your reporting is this — the difficulty of trying to stamp out this trade, because all the nations that you visit and all the big Southeast Asian and Asian nations say, we want to put a stop to this trade, but it persists, as your reporting shows.

    Why is it so hard to stamp out?

  • Terrence McCoy:

    I mean, there's a difference between passing a law and actually enforcing it. And what's happening in a lot of countries where wildlife trafficking is especially rampant is, they are the same places that also have endemic poverty, have endemic struggles.

    And a lot of these countries have neither the legal framework nor — or sometimes even the political will to be able to take on very powerful entrenched wildlife interests in the country that want to traffic these animals.

    And, also, you have people who are just struggling to survive. And, sometimes, it's easy for you and I to say they shouldn't be doing this. But, ultimately, for them, it's a decision between poaching an animal or trafficking an animal or not being able possibly to feed their family.

    And, sometimes, unfortunately, what we have are people making those decisions to work in this enterprise.

  • William Brangham:

    Karl Ammann, who you follow, has actually been tracking this one particular tiger farmer for years. And there's an incredible scene where he actually meets him, finally, after years of sort of hunting this man.

    Can you explain — describe that scene.

  • Terrence McCoy:

    It kind of typifies that same idea, where he has been — he's been tracking this person for five years.

    And he grows into this larger-than-life figure in Karl's mind, where he's talked in intimate detail about how he goes about butchering these tigers. And, finally, Karl meets him. And what he finds is not some sort of gangster, some sort of taciturn, menacing person, but decked in jewelry.

    What he finds is somebody who's in dusty, dirty pants and flip-flops, is just smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. And what he finds is not — is somebody who's impoverished.

    And what Karl realized in that moment is, this is just one more bit player in a world that's unable to save itself.

  • William Brangham:

    Really a tremendous piece of reporting.

    Terrence McCoy of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Terrence McCoy:

    Thanks for having me.

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