By Shreya Dasgupta
Poaching gangs are using India's train networks to smuggle tiger parts across the country undetected. That's according to research that has mapped the hubs of illegal tiger poaching and trafficking activities.
Researchers analysed 40 years' worth of tiger trade data, collected by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), and found that today's trafficking hotspots form a corridor running from southern and central India right up to the country's border with Nepal. This porous border is thought to be the main international hub for trafficking tiger parts into China.
The illegal trade in tiger parts continues to flourish in India, driven by the high demand for tiger parts elsewhere in Asia. The study identified 73 districts in India which may be active hubs for tiger poaching and illegal trafficking. These hubs were not limited to areas near tiger habitats: 17 districts were active but distant hubs, including the Delhi region.
Trafficking was higher in districts closer to railway routes than highways. "Poaching gangs and middlemen prefer to use trains to transport tiger parts, since trains are well-connected to remote forested areas and usually crowded," says Belinda Wright from WPSI. "Buses, in comparison, carry fewer people and can be easily stopped and checked."
In 2012, WPSI recorded 32 cases of poaching and trafficking of wild-tiger parts, rising to 42 in 2013. But an increasing number does not necessarily mean that actual tiger trafficking has gone up, stresses the study's lead author, Koustubh Sharma of the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, India. The number of reported cases depends on how many are detected, which can fluctuate according to levels of law enforcement. Over the 40-year study period, the number of cases decreased in some years, but this might be because poachers and buyers were using newer techniques to avoid detection.
Poaching is insidious, says Wright. "It can wipe out entire populations of tigers before the management even knows that such a threat exists in the area." This happened to the Sariska Tiger Reserve in north-west India in 2004.
The researchers hope that their findings will help enforcement agencies crack down on poaching and monitor their enforcement strategies.
According to Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, protecting tigers will require improved preventative patrols, rather than only chasing traders after they have killed a tiger.
He adds that, for India's tigers, depletion of prey in tiger habitats could be an even bigger threat to the species.