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Only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild today. (J.L. Klein & M.L. Hubert / Biosphoto / Minden Pictures)

Catching the Tiger Killers

Deep in the jungle, police are racing to stop crimes against big cats—before it’s too late

In the hot and humid jungles of Thailand, forest rangers came across a horrible sight one day in 2010. Two tiger cubs lay dead in a wildlife preserve.

The rangers were too late to find the cubs’ mother. All that remained of her was blood on the ground.

Poachers had poisoned the tigers. Then they ran off with the mother’s body. If the rangers had not shown up, the poachers would have taken the cubs too.

TIGERS IN TROUBLE

One hundred years ago, there were about 100,000 tigers. Today, only about 3,200 remain in the wild.

Poachers are a major problem. These killers sell tiger fur, teeth, claws, and other body parts in illegal markets. One tiger’s parts can sell for $50,000.

Because they hunt in huge jungles thick with trees, poachers are hard to find. But they must be caught, says Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society. This group works to help endangered animals. For tigers to survive, says Bennett, “we’ve just got to do a better job.”

ON THE HUNT

After the three tigers were killed in 2010, the Thai government trained 40 new rangers. Over and over, they chased the poachers through the thick jungle.

Someone had seen one of the poachers’ faces. The police drew a sketch of him. They showed it to people who lived nearby. That helped the rangers stay on the poachers’ trail.

The rangers came close many times. But the poachers escaped every time. Could the rangers find them before they killed again?

TIGER “FINGERPRINTS”

Finally, after many months, the rangers spotted the poachers again. After an exchange of gunfire, they arrested the criminals.

Soon, the police found evidence that the poachers had killed again. The proof came from a cell phone.

On a poacher’s phone, police found photos of the men posing with a dead male tiger. The poachers claimed that the photos were from a nearby country where tigers aren’t protected. But another photo told a different story.

Deep in the Thai forest, the rangers had set up camera traps. These devices take photos when they sense movement.

A camera trap photo showed the same male tiger walking through a wildlife preserve before he was killed. That meant that the tiger came from a protected area. But how could police prove it was the same tiger?

Tiger stripes are like fingerprints. No two patterns are the same. When police compared the photos, the stripes on the tiger’s head matched. That proved it was the same tiger. The poachers were convicted of killing all four tigers—the mother, her cubs, and the male tiger.

WILL TIGERS SURVIVE?

The poachers were given up to five years in prison. That might not seem like much for killing tigers. But since the poachers were caught in July 2011, no tigers have been killed in that wildlife preserve.

The fight to save tigers isn’t over. To help catch wildlife criminals, rangers are now trying out high-tech tools like night-vision goggles and remote-controlled gliders. Undercover agents look for people buying and selling tiger parts.

There is no time to waste. “If we don’t try and save tigers,” says Bennett, “within the next five years, they will be gone.”

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of Action. For more from Action, click here.

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    Thailand

    by Mel Friedman

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    •     Highly visual introduction to world geography
    •     Packed with photos, original maps, and browser-friendly sidebars
    •     Timelines compare each country's history to world history
    •     "Fast Facts" appendix highlights key information from the text
    •     "To Find Out More" listings encourage independent research
    •     Index makes navigating subject matter easy

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