How China, Asia Fuel Poaching of Endangered Animals

Endangered animals are valued not as living creatures but as commodities.

Earlier this week, Thai authorities raided a monastery known internationally for its tiger residents, AFP reports. Instead of being the sanctuary, the Tiger Temple turns out to be a nest of abuse and wildlife abuse, authorities allege.

Nearly 1,000 officers participating in the raid over the last week have already seized dozens of the 137 tigers residing at the temple. Police also discovered the remains of at least 40 cubs in the monastery's freezers. What the remains are stored for is anyone's guess, but animal rights groups have accused the temple of turning a blind eye to trafficking the parts for use in Chinese medicine.

In their defense, the monks claim that the allegations are unfounded, and the discovery of the deceased cubs is simply a misunderstanding of temple practices when a cub is stillborn or dies shortly after birth.

Whatever lies ahead for the animals at the Tiger Temple, the future looks bleak for many wild animals, not just because of the inhumane treatment they receive from their caretakers, but the market that places a premium on them not as living creatures but as commodities. Traditional medicine and other consumer products not only China but across Asia put tigers and other species at risk of extinction due to poaching, as the demand for these products can devastate wild animal populations. In this list, we examine some of the animals most in danger.

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Sharks are caught, dismembered and then tossed back into the ocean to die, either as a result of suffocation or blood loss. Prices for shark fins can reach as high as $500 per pound ($1,100 per kilogram), but the shark's body isn't as valuable to fishermen, which is why the rest of the animal is discarded rather than taking up cargo space.

China's appetite for shark fin soup, often served at weddings and other special occasions, has led dozens of species to become endangered or vulnerable to extinction. Around 100 million sharks are killed globally each year, and some populations have dropped between 60 and 70 percent due to shark fishing, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, and in particular basketball star Yao Ming, China has over the last decade or so lost its taste for shark fin soup. Yao simply explained what shark finning really is, as the Christian Science Monitor reports.

In 2006 survey data showed that 75 percent of the Chinese public didn't realize shark fin soup came from shark fins. An additional 19 percent thought the fins grew back. But in 2013, 91 percent of Chinese citizens surveyed said they would support a shark fin ban.

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Asian Elephants

In Chinese, elephant ivory translates more accurately to "elephant tooth," which may explain why a survey undertaken by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that nearly 70 percent of Chinese respondents did not realize that ivory came from dead elephants.

Asian elephants are the largest terrestrial mammals on the continent, weighing up to 5.5 tons (5 metric tons) and growing up to 9.8 feet (3 meters) at the shoulder, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But even though they are individually large, as a population, Asian elephants are shrinking.

At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants roamed across most of the continent, but their numbers have been cut in half and are still in decline, largely due to poaching for their ivory and habitat destruction. Their range is now limited to a mere 15 percent of its original expanse, the WWF notes.

As elephant numbers have gone down, the ivory trade has boomed, at least that's the takeaway based on the increase in total weight of ivory seizures. Hong Kong, a major hub of the ivory market, seized a record 8,041 kilograms (17,727 pounds). The city banned the import and export of ivory earlier this year, a move lauded by animal rights groups.

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Sea Turtles

Turtles appear in both Chinese medicine and cuisine, and the double duty is putting a strain on their numbers, as Public Radio International (PRI) reports. The reptiles are poached for their meat, used in turtle soup or other dishes; their shells appear in consumer products, ranging from guitar picks to handbags; even turtle bones have a use in Chinese medical treatments.

Sea turtles are an important part of marine ecology, helping to maintain coral reefs and grass beds, the WWF notes. In doing so, they help humans by supporting the area homes to commercially important animals such as shrimp, lobster and tuna.

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Chinese Alligator

With fewer than 120 individuals left in the wild, the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) is the most endangered species in the crocodilian family, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Beginning nearly 7,000 years, humans began encroaching on the alligators' habitat, converting the land to rice fields. Habitat destruction, wetland contamination, poisoning, poaching and more hit the animals so drastically that the IUCN includes the alligator as critically endangered on its Red List.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the meat of these alligators is considered a cure for the common cold. Its organs are also sold for other alleged medicinal properties, such as preventing cancer.

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Sun Bears

First designated as vulnerable on the IUCN's Red List in 2007, the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the world's smallest bear species and a native of the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. In a matter of a couple of decades, wild populations of these bears have halved, thanks in large part to poaching.

The bears are farmed for their bile, believed to have medicinal properties, even though there's no scientific basis to support its use in any sort of treatment. Instead of being killed, bear are farmed for their bile, caged up in constraining and downright painful conditions that can lead to infection or worse.

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Rhinoceros numbers crashed in the 20th century as the demand for their horns for use in traditional Chinese medicine contributed to their demise. All five species of rhinos have faced the threat of extinction. Two species, the Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino, have numbers totaling less than 100 in the wild.

China banned the inclusion of rhino horn for products of medicinal use in the 1990s, and demand has been limited since at least in the People's Republic. However, as The Atlantic reports, the reprieve given to rhino populations was short-lived.

In the mid-2000s, a rumor spread in Vietnam that ingesting rhino horn cured a politician's cancer. Largely as a result of Vietnamese demand, rhinos are once again on the brink. Given that a kilogram sell for $100,000 (or $45,450 a pound), a single rhino horn adds up to about $300,000, a hefty price on the head of any animal.

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The vaquita, which translates to "little cow" in Spanish, is a marine mammal native to Mexico and the world's smallest porpoise. The porpoise itself isn't sought after by fishermen, but these animals frequently find their way into gillnets as bycatch. Less than a 100 of them are thought to exist in the wild, all because of China's demand for the giant fish, the totoaba, The Guardian reports.

The fish bladder, whcih can sell anywhere from $2,500 to $9,400 have been dubbed "aquatic cocaine" due to both their price and the appetite for them. Given the price these animals fetch, it's unlikely that the solution to the vaquita's woes, permanently removing all gillnets from the porpoise's territory, will catch on with fishermen.

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Musk deer

Musk deer are on the decline across Asia, and all because of their musk. The scent gland, or "pod," that gives the animal is used a range of traditional medicine to treat everything from heart problems to breathing issues, according to the WWF. The musk also appears in shampoos, perfumes, cosmetic, detergents and a variety of other products.

Even though the mush from the gland can be produced artificially, natural musk is still more valued by both manufacturers and consumers, meaning thousands of deer are dying over a simple matter of preference.

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