The illegal trade in tiger products is a serious problem not only in Asia but also in Europe.
The inspectors opened an old freezer and found the rotting remains of tigers, lions and cougars stuffed into it.
“I have been working for the inspectorate 25 years,” environmental inspector Pavla Rihova recalled. “But the situation there was really horrible. If you can imagine: an old freezer, without electricity, full of meat and dead bodies, in the garden for two years. Absolutely incredible.”
Equally incredible is that this gruesome scene did not play out in a developing Asian nation with loosely enforced trafficking laws. It did so in Prague, Czech Republic, in the very heart of the European Union.
During a recent raid local investigators also discovered the freshly killed carcass of a four-year-old tiger lying on the floor: the big cat had been shot through the eye so that its pelt could later be stripped without any unsightly holes in it.
Their raid followed five years of meticulous investigation by Czech police, customs officials and wildlife trafficking experts after they got wind of the workings of an international wildlife-smuggling syndicate allegedly operated by Czech and Vietnamese criminals. In early 2013 Czech customs inspectors discovered a large bag of tiger bones in the van of a Vietnamese man, who said he had received them from a breeding facility in Slovakia. The same year the skeletons of two tigers were found concealed within a set of loudspeakers on its way to Hanoi in Vietnam.
Over time, investigators discovered that at the heart of the tiger part-smuggling operation was a large private breeding facility in the Czech Republic, whose owner, a Czech national, had dozens of lions and tigers in his possession. His ostensible purpose was to supply live animals for circuses. The facility’s owner, however, had been working with a Vietnamese wildlife trafficker and a local taxidermist who would prepare the body parts of newly killed big cats and smuggle them to Vietnam.
They slaughtered captive big cats and processed their parts for the traditional Chinese medicine market, including their bones, claws and skins. All three are now facing charges on various offenses.
“We have been warning for several years that illegal trade in tiger products is really serious problem in Europe, not only in Asia,” Rihova says. “There are many tigers in captivity in Europe, a lack of overview who holds them and where.”