Tiger trafficking: the murky world of America's big-money big cat trade

Photograph: Francois Picard/AFP/Getty Images

The first red flag was the shiny Chevy Camaro with no license plate.

“Anything to declare?” asked the US Customs and Border Protection officer.

Related: Animals from Tiger King Park will be handed to US government

“Nothing,” replied the 18-year-old driver, Luis Eudoro Valencia, a native of the tiny desert town of Perris, California.

It was 1.30am on 23 August 2017, at the Otay Mesa port of entry, right where Mexico becomes California. The 24-hour crossing, one of three linking Tijuana and San Diego, is the border’s busiest commercial point, full of semis and flatbeds.

With such heavy cover, maybe Valencia thought he could slip through.

A tagless Chevy probably didn’t scream much beyond negligent driver – that is, until an officer shone a flashlight on the man riding shotgun, 21-year-old Eriberto Paniagua, and an orange ball of fur darted between his legs.

“It’s just a cat,” Paniagua explained.

At six pounds, it may have weighed the same as a tabby, but it didn’t look like it. Minutes later, the officers had found a six-week-old Bengal tiger cub sitting in the front passenger footwell. A tiger.

Paniagua produced AeroMexico Cargo paperwork, even a sales receipt stating tigers aren’t a protected species (tigers are endangered and illegal to import to the US and in any of the 175 nations that prohibit the international trade in threatened species).

Valencia claimed he just wanted an exotic pet, and then shifted gears, admitting to having paid $300 to a Tijuana man he saw walking an adult tiger on a leash.

The story quickly got weirder.

Scrolling his photo roll and text messages, officers saw it wasn’t a one-off: there were shots of monkeys, jaguars, lions. Valencia was a teenage wildlife trafficker.

The men were arrested and the Camaro impounded – but after the officers plopped the ball of fur into a cardboard box, they put their heads together and wondered: what do we do with the cub?

‘So many big cats in the US disappear’

There are about 10,000 tigers in the US – more in Texas alone than in India. Thirty states allow private ownership of predatory exotics like tigers. The requirements are deceptively simple: a USDA conservation label form and a $30 license. Nine states require no permit or license whatsoever. This allows virtually anyone to own, breed and sell tigers.

Most of the trade is grounded in a high demand for tiger bones and products popular in the traditional Chinese medicine market – which is how I end up in Colorado, stepping through the 22,000-square-foot National Wildlife Property Repository, a mausoleum of 1.3m confiscated animal products.

Shelves of mounted tigers, skins, medicinals, gold tooth earrings, claw necklaces, skulls unfold in front of me – the scene is eerily reminiscent of the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, says Sarah Metzer, a US Fish and Wildlife Service education specialist. “What you’re seeing is maybe 10% of all of the seized goods from US ports of entry.” She pushes aside a zebra skin chaise longue to open a loading dock door. “There’s so much contraband we’re running out of space.”

Metzer heads a skeleton crew that catalogues, stores and loans items to academics and federal agencies for training, even field work. The tiger skin in front of me could be used in a sting operation. With only 120 wildlife inspectors nationwide, USFWS leans heavily on the border patrol and other law enforcement.

Passing a leopard coat, Metzer crouches by a moth-eaten Bengal tiger head and a snarling cub forever frozen by a taxidermist.

“This is a tiger fetus someone was trying to sell online,” she says, sober as an undertaker. “If there’s money to be made off of these animals, it doesn’t matter what form they’re in, there will be folks trying to meet that demand.”

I ask if captive US tigers are smuggled overseas, and Metzer says there’s no way wild tigers alone support this trade. She leads me to an aisle housing thousands of organ and bone medicinals – all tiger. “Every part of the tiger is incorporated in some type of traditional medicine, and as a social status symbol,” she says.

Scientific studies show these products contain no medicinal properties. The Chinese government admits as much, yet permits the goods as long as they’re from farmed animals.

“When you think about the financial value of the bones of adult tigers, it’s huge,” says John Goodrich, the chief scientist of Panthera, one of the leading big cat NGOs. “That’s the cause of this huge black market.”

With so many of the animals in the US, is it then fair to speculate that tigers from Texas end up as byproducts in Beijing?

“So many big cats in the US disappear,” says John R Platt, the editor of the Revelator, the media partner of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I would not be surprised if US tigers were turning up in China.”

A tiger that was found in a south-east Houston residence awaits transport to a rescue facility. Photograph: Godofredo A Vasquez/AP

While listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, the law allows private possession of captive-bred tigers as long as they’re used for “conservation”, but experts say no tigers bred in captivity are ever released. In 1900, there were about 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today, about 4,000 remain in a handful of nations. If none return to the wild, how does private possession of the feline benefit the species?

“It doesn’t,” says Nicole Paquette, the Humane Society’s chief programs and policy officer. “Public contact with big cats fuels every component of the trade.”

That trade includes everything from Instagram-ready roadside zoos to six-figure tiger skin rugs, as well as tiger bone wines that run to hundreds of dollars a bottle made from steeping a carcass in rice wine, then ageing it. Boiling, grinding and mixing bones with herbs forms a glue-like plaster, all of which requires a steady supply of parts, which experts say is probably coming from farmed tigers in Asia and America.

Wildlife traffickers use the same routes as narco traffickers, says Andrea Crosta, the head of Earth League International, an NGO using counter-surveillance to fight wildlife crime.

In South America, Crosta has documented poached jaguar teeth and bones shipped to China and passed off as tiger, another corollary to the trade affecting other species. “It’s easy to transport, you just put the fangs in your pocket and go on a plane. Jaguar canines in South America go for $200 to $300 – you can sell it in China as tiger for $5,000 to $10,000. You make real money.”

Border cub’s next steps

Otay Mesa’s border cub now weighs more than 300 pounds and could easily rip off your arm if you tried to pet him. We meet in the mountains east of San Diego, near Cleveland national forest.

Lions, Tigers and Bears, the nonprofit that took the cub in, is purposely hard to reach, with dirt roads and a spread that resembles an Old West version of Jurassic Park; I can make out the stalking silhouettes when I pull up.

Bobbi Brink, who started the sanctuary in 2002, greets me in a golf cart. I wedge beside her as we zoom by paddock after paddock – bobcats, pumas, leopards, bears, all victims of abuse and trafficking. The fences are high for a reason.

We stop at the sprawling enclosure of the cub she baptized Moka, meaning “chance” in Bengali. Life behind bars here is as free as he could ever hope for.

Moka rises and stretches, muscles rippling under bright orange fur. Farmed tigers are usually better-fed and better-looking. Brighter coats drive up prices, meaning that in a strange twist, wild tigers are worth less.

I can’t help thinking about the Netflix phenom Joe Exotic. The Oklahoma zookeeper, dubbed the Tiger King, was convicted of a murder-for-hire plot against a Tampa animal sanctuary owner, falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act after he sold cubs to pay for the killing.

Leigh Henry, from the World Wildlife Federation, called Tiger King a missed opportunity. “I would have hoped a show like that, with such a large viewership, would highlight the issue of captive tigers in the US,” she said. “We’ve been working for 15 years to try to get the US to clamp down, but everything is up in the air because of Covid.”

A captive tiger lives about 20 years and costs $10,000 annually for food and care – which is why cubs are more valuable. Grown up, they’re hard to manage and less lucrative. Adopters with good intentions but little training do not know what they’re getting into when they fork over $500 for a cub. A baby Moka can star on social media for an $80 photo op at an ersatz zoo or petting venues that claim to breed tigers but in fact encourage trafficking.

“If you cuddle or take a selfie with a tiger, you’re in a facility with no conservation value and they very well could be selling the body parts out the back door,” Debbie Banks, the tiger lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency, tells me when I raise the issue a few days after my visit to the sanctuary.

Dozens of dead tigers in freezers

Sketchy rules have another price: more than 700 recorded big cat maulings and deaths in the US. In one incident, known as the Zanesville Massacre, a mentally disturbed Ohio man freed 56 tigers, lions, bears and wolves before killing himself. Police tracked and killed most of the animals, and Ohio has banned dangerous exotics as pets.

In 2019, the Illinois representative Mike Quigley introduced the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which would outlaw all big cat ownership (the bill has since been reintroduced in the Senate).

Without public records, numbers and locations remain unknown. “Not enough people talk about this,” says Quigley, whose office has found 77 facilities offering tiger cubs for sale. “There’s no central tiger database. And I’m not the only one asking ‘where have all these big cats gone?’”

Killing these animals for profit, selling hides, parts or meat are illegal; and it’s illegal to sell cats across state lines. Yet it can be legal within a state, based on individual law.

Take California. Of the 260 US Department of Agriculture-licensed exhibitors there, about 20 are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. With so many Hollywood trainers, theme parks, private menageries, roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries, California ranks third nationwide in dangerous big cat incidents.

The market is huge, but the penalties aren’t.

Cubs like Moka aren’t one-offs, says Phillip Land, a special agent in the USFWS office of law enforcement on the southern border. “In Brownsville, Texas, they tried to smuggle a tiger cub in a trash bag across the border. They basically dumped him on the side of the river. Border patrol found it and called us,” he says.

And in 2005, a breeder in Colton, California, was convicted of child endangerment and animal cruelty after authorities found 11 tiger and leopard cubs in his attic, two tigers on the porch, 58 dead tiger cubs in a freezer, and about 30 dead tigers decomposing on the property.

The public may consider these offenses relatively insignificant, but Land tells me it’s often the same gangs at play as in other offenses. And with so much money, few regulations and a healthy pipeline, the problem isn’t going away.

The hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett once said: “the book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end.” A century later, with the species on the brink just to make a medicinal wine that doesn’t even work, or to binge-watch a show before we all move on to the next hit, the haunting question remains: is this the new law of the jungle?

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

Long Covid: what are you entitled to if you can't work in the UK?

Photograph: Getty Images Since falling ill with Covid-19 in March 2020, Sara Hawthorn, 38, has been experiencing extreme fatigue and other problems, such as trouble concentrating and brain fog. “I ... Read more »

Flat Jockeys Championship set to go down to the wire for Oisin Murphy and William Buick

(Getty Images) The Flat Jockeys Championship looks set to go down to the final day of the season with just two race wins separating Oisin Murphy and William Buick. Murphy ... Read more »

Jumpa lombong emas haram, ops khas diteruskan di Sabah

© Provided by Free Malaysia Today Pengarah Jabatan Keselamatan Dalam Negeri dan Ketenteraman Awam Bukit Aman Hazani Ghazali berkata Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah bermanfaat di Sabah dan mungkin dilaksanakan di Semenanjung. ... Read more »

Leicester vs Manchester United prediction: How will Premier League fixture play out today?

© Getty Images Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch for Manchester United – Getty Images Leicester City welcome Manchester United to the King Power Stadium this afternoon as the visitors look ... Read more »

David Amess: Every MP offered security advice in wake of murder

Every MP in the UK is being contacted by police today to discuss whether they should step up security measures in the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess. ... Read more »

Man City vs Burnley prediction: How will Premier League fixture play out today?

© AFP via Getty Images Manchester City and England teammates Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling – AFP via Getty Images Manchester City host Burnley this afternoon as the Premier League ... Read more »

Brentford vs Chelsea live stream: How to watch Premier League fixture online and on TV tonight

Chelsea head to newly promoted Brentford on Saturday evening, looking to maintain their place at the top of the Premier League table with victory. © PA Wire Thomas Tuchel takes ... Read more »

Brentford vs Chelsea predicted line-ups: Team news ahead of Premier League fixture tonight

Brentford host Chelsea on Saturday evening in a big Premier League game for both teams. © PA Wire Ivan Toney has impressed for Brentford – PA Wire The Bees have ... Read more »

Man City vs Burnley predicted line-ups: Team news ahead of Premier League fixture today

© Getty Images Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden – Getty Images Manchester City welcome Burnley to the Etihad Stadium today as the Premier League gets back under way following the ... Read more »

Brentford vs Chelsea prediction: How will Premier League fixture play out tonight?

Chelsea will hope Romelu Lukaku is fully fit to face Brentford on Saturday afternoon – and gets back to scoring ways in the Premier League. © AFP via Getty Images ... Read more »

John Eustace outlines what QPR must do against Fulham in west London derby

© Provided by Football League World Fulham QPR n QPR assistant boss John Eustace has claimed it is vital his side “impose our style of football” if they’re to take ... Read more »

Horror as girl, 4, vanishes from family tent in wild Australian Outback during dead of night wearing just her PJs

A DESPERATE search has been launched for a girl, 4, who vanished from her family's tent while camping in Australia's wild Outback. Cleo Smith disappeared wearing just her pyjamas after ... Read more »

‘If it were the UK, police would have opened fire': the explosive film about Trump's Capitol Hill rioters

Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters When Dan Reed and Jamie Roberts began approaching networks about a film focused on the storming of the US Capitol – an attack on American democracy on ... Read more »

Boris Johnson lays flowers at scene of Sir David Amess death amid terror inquiry

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has laid flowers at the scene of the fatal stabbing of MP Sir David Amess, which police believe could be linked to Islamist extremism. Mr Johnson, ... Read more »

Tobias Ellwood urges MPs to end face-to-face meetings with public

Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters The former Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood has urged his fellow MPs to stop offering face-to-face meetings with constituents following the fatal stabbing of Sir David Amess. Ellwood, ... Read more »

Woman dies after last month's huge blast in Sweden

Sweden Apartment Blast (Adam Ihse) A woman who was among four people seriously injured in a huge building explosion and fire last month that damaged at least 140 apartments has ... Read more »

The 20 Best Documentaries on the Royal Family for Every Kate Middleton or Queen Elizabeth Stan

Sure, you could get your royal fix by re-watching Netflix's The Crown for the seventh time (and we wouldn’t blame you at all). But if you’re craving new content, then ... Read more »

IMD issues 'Red Alert' in 5 districts as heavy rainfall continues in Kerala

Heavy rains lashed Kerala, especially the south and central regions on Saturday, causing water-logging in several areas and leaving many rivers in spate, as the weathermen sounded ‘red alert’ predicting ... Read more »

Unions threatening Christmas chaos with MORE HGV driver walkouts

© Provided by Daily Mail MailOnline logo Union chiefs are said to be preparing strike action for British HGV drivers after ministers backed plans to make it more attractive for ... Read more »

Australia's winemakers feel the frostiness in China relations

Ma Chaoxiang was farming in the vineyard on the Tibetan plateau when he heard the Australians were coming. It was May and China’s borders were closed, but the 47-year-old was ... Read more »

Some COVID-19 restrictions will ease on Monday as NSW reaches 80 per cent fully vaccinated — what you need to know

New South Wales has hit its 80 per cent COVID-19 vaccination milestone, a week earlier than initially expected. That means we’ve progressed to the next stage of the roadmap for ... Read more »

Virals: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clarifies Jesse Lingard contract situation

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has clarified the situation regarding Jesse Lingard‘s contract.  © Alex Pantling/Getty Images Sport Manchester United v West Ham United – Carabao Cup Third Round ... Read more »

‘Fully deserved', ‘Sky is the limit' – Many Nottingham Forest fans react to emerging Brennan Johnson news

© Provided by Football League World Championship – Barnsley v Nottingham Forest Brennan Johnson has been named the EFL Young Player of the Month for September. The Nottingham Forest youngster ... Read more »

Confirmed: Sheffield Wednesday player extends time away from Hillsborough

© Provided by Football League World Hillsborough Sheffield Wednesday n Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Luke Jackson has extended his loan spell at non-league side Guiseley AFC by another month. The 19-year-old ... Read more »

Fulham manager Marco Silva makes claim about QPR individual

© Provided by Football League World Stefan Johansen Fulham take on QPR on Saturday in a West London Derby with both sides currently sitting in the top six.  The fixture ... Read more »

Neil Warnock provides irritating Middlesbrough transfer update

© Provided by Football League World Championship – Hull City v Middlesbrough Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock has revealed that an attempt to sign a free-agent over the international break failed ... Read more »

Covid and flu - why is it such a lethal combo? Expert claims 60,000 fatalities 'realistic'

The coronavirus pandemic has left Britain open to a deadly flu epidemic prompting the UK Government to urge eligible individuals to take up the offer of the influenza vaccine and ... Read more »

Islamic State claims responsibility for deadly mosque bombing in Afghanistan

ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack on a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of 47 people. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images KABUL, Afghanistan — The Islamic ... Read more »

Polis teliti laporan terhadap kumpulan antivaksin

LARUT – Polis akan meneliti setiap laporan diterima terhadap kumpulan antivaksin sebelum tindakan perundangan diambil. Menteri Dalam Negeri, Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin berkata, siasatan mendalam akan dilakukan menerusi laporan polis ... Read more »

Eve expecting first child with husband Maximillion Cooper

© Bang Showbiz Eve and Maximillion Cooper Eve is pregnant with her first child with her husband Maximillion Cooper. The 42-year-old rapper is already a stepmother to the 49-year-old entrepreneur ... Read more »

Polis kesan individu 'prank' mahu cederakan orang awam

© Provided by Sinar Harian KUALA LUMPUR – Polis mengesahkan sedang mengesan individu yang terlibat dalam sebuah video tular berdurasi 29 saat memaparkan seorang lelaki mahu mencederakan orang awam di ... Read more »

Individu tegur orang ramai buang sampah merata-rata diberi penghargaan

© Provided by Sinar Harian PORT DICKSON- Orang ramai yang berani menegur individu lain yang membuang sampah merata-rata akan diberikan penghargaan. Ketua Pegawai Eksekutif Perbadanan Pengurusan Sisa Pepejal dan Pembersihan ... Read more »

Jumlah pelancong ke Pahang merosot 79 peratus

© Provided by Sinar Harian TEMERLOH – Pahang mencatatkan kemerosotan kehadiran pelancong hingga 79 peratus pada tahun ini akibat pandemik Covid-19. Exco Pelancongan, Kebudayaan, Alam Sekitar, Perladangan dan Komoditi negeri, ... Read more »

Transferred money to wrong account? Here's how to recover it

© Provided by Zee News New Delhi: In mobile banking, money is frequently transferred from one account to another or vice versa. However, this can also happen in the case ... Read more »

MS Dhoni And Sakshi Dhoni Expecting Their Second Child In 2022? Twitter Abuzz With Speculations

© Provided by News18 MS Dhoni And Sakshi Dhoni Expecting Their Second Child In 2022? Twitter Abuzz With Speculations Amidst the euphoria of Chennai Super King winning their fourth IPL ... Read more »

TCS to employ fresh graduates through ‘Smart Hiring Program'; check details

© Provided by CNBCTV18 The Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is planning to hire around 35,000 fresh graduates through its ‘Smart Hiring Program’ in November. The country’s largest software exporter has ... Read more »

Garena Free Fire Redeem Codes for October 16, 2021: How to redeem the codes

Garena Free Fire is a successful online royale game available on mobile devices. It has gained popularity for its adventure-driven battle game. It is one of the most popular mobile ... Read more »

Rahul Dravid best candidate to coach Team India, feels former chief selector MSK Prasad

© Provided by Zee News Former India chief selector MSK Prasad feels Rahul Dravid is the best option as a coach if India wish to continue its dream run following ... Read more »

Girl dances to Saat Samundar Paar on railway platform in viral video with over 25 million views

A video of a girl dancing to Saat Samundar Paar has gone viral on social media. A video of a girl dancing to the song Saat Samundar Paar on a ... Read more »

Miley Cyrus Dedicated A Handwritten Letter To Her Fans, Teases New Era Of Work

© Provided by Lehren Miley Cyrus Dedicated A Handwritten Letter To Her Fans Popstar Miley Cyrus is gearing up for her new project that will take inspiration from the change ... Read more »