Tiger poachers are being closed down by former commando Aldo Kane, who is determined to save the species from extinction. By Etan Smallman
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It takes a lot to distress Aldo Kane. The former Royal Marines commando, who became one of Britain’s youngest elite snipers, has been dubbed “the hardest man in the world”. But in a new BBC documentary, the 42-year-old Scottish action man is stunned into horrified silence, cradling his head in his hands, as he is shown footage of a grossly fattened-up “basement tiger” lying dead on the ground before being sliced open and carved up, its bones boiled down to produce a range of dubious medicines.
The animal is just one victim of a roaring trade across South East Asia as consumer demand for products such as tiger wine and tiger glue – both made from the creature’s bones, which are now more sought after than its skin – results in the poaching, breeding and slaughter of a species on the brink of extinction.
Ninety-six per cent of the world’s tigers have disappeared since the turn of the 20th century, with fewer than 4,000 left in the wild. Meanwhile, there are up to 8,000 held captive in various commercial operations across the Far East. Kane has been “absolutely obsessed” by the animals since he first came to Malaysia for jungle warfare training at 19 – marvelling at being able to share the same space as “the most majestic apex predator”.
After leaving the forces, he returned to the region to share his skills, teaching local anti-poaching units the basics of infantry training, from observation and patrolling to camouflage and concealment. In the hour-long film, Tigers: Hunting the Traffickers, Kane follows key smuggling routes connecting Malaysia, China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. He is seen breaking into zoos, farms and factories at the heart of a criminal underworld profiting from tiger products that have a street value higher than cocaine.
Kane was well aware that he was putting his life on the line while gathering his secret footage. “A dissident in Thailand could easily end up face down in the Mekong River, shot dead,” he tells i. But it was worth it. Video of him extracting dead tiger cubs from chest freezers at a breeding facility in Laos is believed to have helped result in the farm’s owner being handed a six-year prison sentence.
“I think what shocked me most was the actual scale of it,” says Kane. “In China, some of these farms are huge operations with hundreds of tigers that are living in small compounds and are being bred purely for consumption.”
Others – like the one in the video that so moved Kane – are smuggled from Laos and Thailand to Vietnam, where they are caged in traffickers’ basements, then killed and cooked to order for wealthy buyers who come down from Hanoi.
As Vietnamese undercover investigator Chau Doan explains, many of the products are bought because they are believed to boost sexual performance: “You are a man, you consume the most powerful beast of the jungle. It’s small myths like that, accumulated, that create demand for the tiger.”
Finally, Kane is shown taking his footage to Geneva to present to international decision makers at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – and despairing at the feebleness of their response.
“It’s hard not to be pessimistic about it,” he admits, “but ultimately we need to concentrate on the good parts. If people feel like the situation for wild tigers is hopeless, then we won’t get anyone involved in conserving them. For example, in India and some places in Nepal and Siberia, with the right government backing and help, their tiger numbers are starting to come back.
“If all this film does is stop British tourists going to Thailand and going to a tiger zoo, then that’s helping, but ultimately what I’d love is to raise an awareness across the world about the plight of tigers, wild tigers specifically, and to get tiger farms closed down.”
As he says in the documentary: “This planet will be a very, very different place without tigers in it. And I just cannot sit back and let that happen.”
- ‘Tigers: Hunting The Traffickers’ is on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow