The conservationist who pretended to eat tiger meat to save it from extinction
by Belén Hernández on EL PAÍS - Planeta Futuro - Madrid - October 21, 2021
Karl Ammann has spent 10 years researching the mafias that breed and kill tigers in Southeast Asia and sell them whole or in pieces on the black market. It is estimated that in this region there are 300 specimens in the wild, although many NGOs denounce that they are on the verge of disappearing. His work is featured in 'The Tiger Mafia', a documentary that premieres in Spain.
Karl Ammann, at a moment of his research. COURTESY OF KARL AMMANN.
What would you be willing to do to prevent the extinction of an animal species? Contradictory though it may seem, conservationist Karl Ammann (St. Gallen, Switzerland, 1948) even considered eating their meat? Or at least pretending to, even if it meant an internal and moral debate.
His gesture in front of the camera looks serious, uncomfortable, even a little apologetic. He is sitting in one of the luxurious restaurants inside the King Romans Casino, a Las Vegas-like complex on the banks of the Mekong River in the so-called Golden Triangle, on the border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
Ammann has before him the restaurant's menu and one of its star and therefore also most expensive items: a plate of tiger meat for 988 renminbi (132.90 euros). "Ordering it and pretending to eat it was crucial to be able to tell whether it was fake or real meat. I had to take a sample and then take it to a laboratory," he explains in a video call from his home in Nanyuki, Kenya, where he has lived for 40 years. "The tests came back positive, so it was the only way to prove that yes, meat from this animal is being sold and offered publicly," he adds.
In addition to pretending to eat tiger meat, Karl Ammann has spent 10 years posing as a buyer of wild animals or of jewellery made from their tusks or bones; he has alternated with those who are considered the bosses of this illegal business throughout Southeast Asia; he has extracted information from them and recorded them with a camera, often hidden in his bag, as well as posing as just another tourist in zoos around the world to see the ins and outs of the business first hand.
These situations, in the style of gonzo journalism, can be seen in the documentary The Tiger Mafia, an investigative work that denounces how mafia organisations in Southeast Asia illegally breed, market and sell whole or partial specimens of these animals, in danger of extinction, to later market them in the pharmaceutical and clandestine jewellery industries. The film premieres in Spain this Friday, 22 October, as part of the Another Way of Festival, which celebrates its 7th edition of films on sustainable progress from today until the 28th in Madrid, in a hybrid format, in person and virtually.
A black market that generates millions
There are barely 3.900 wild tigers left in the world living in the wild, spread across 13 countries. In Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China, where Ammann has focused his study, an estimated 300 tigers remain, although many NGOs report that they are on the verge of disappearing, of reaching zero. "The most distressing conclusion we have drawn from all this research is how fast this market is evolving and how far they are willing to go to make money. And now, with the internet as an ally to be able to sell more, the market will expand," Ammann laments.
"There are just 3,900 wild tigers left in the wild in the world, spread across 13 countries. In Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China, an estimated 300 remain, but NGOs fear they are close to 0."
The sad reality is that there are currently more wild tigers living in captivity than in the wild. A drama that the Netflix series Tiger King already pointed out and that Karl's film, together with producer Laurin Merz, now confirms. And the vast majority of them do so in subhuman conditions in theme parks, zoos or breeding farms. For years, Ammann visited them to gather information and denounce their dramatic situation in countries such as Laos, which despite promising to put an end to this trade since 2016, continues to be the world centre of wildlife trafficking, as Ammann revealed in a report in The Washington Post.
Fangs in the form of earrings and pendants for sale on the black market. THE TIGER MAFIA.
A market that extends across the globe and in the form of de souvenirs and jewellery, such as bracelets, necklaces and earrings, which can reach exorbitant prices, or rarities and extravagant pieces such as a tiger's penis, which on the black market costs around 2,600 euros, as shown in one scene of the film. "I don't think anyone can make an exact estimate, but if we calculate that 10,000 tigers are bred every year and a third of them are sold on the black market for 50,000 dollars (43,019 euros) each, we are talking about millions," says the conservationist. "Not to mention all the profit that goes to middlemen and sellers of jewellery and bones," he adds.
The film, Ammann confesses, is almost "an accident", the result of many years of work "without a concrete plan". The filmmaker had to store more than 200 hours of footage: "At the beginning we didn't know if there would be enough material. New information led to new contacts and more questions to be asked. So it was a matter of going back to Southeast Asia and continuing to work". In addition to pretending to eat tiger meat, Karl Ammann has spent 10 years posing as a buyer of wild animals or of jewellery made from their tusks or bones; he has alternated with those who are considered the bosses of this illegal business throughout Southeast Asia; he has extracted information from them and recorded them with a camera, often hidden in his bag, as well as posing as just another tourist in zoos around the world to see the ins and outs of the business first hand.
Three wild tigers bred in captivity.THE TIGER MAFIA.
Some of the last parts of the filming in Laos, as producer Laurin Merz explains, took place at the same time as China was closing its borders because of the coronavirus. "It took us a year and a half to finish the film, because we had to choose the best story, a thread to follow among so much good material, as well as filming some more scenes, while editing in parallel," Merz explains. The film has recently been banned in China, another epicentre of the wild.
Amman admits that his passion for animal advocacy was born after a trip down the Congo River in 1988. There he saw something unusual for him: a row of hundreds of slaughtered primates that would later be sold as bushmeat on the market. That was one of the spurs for further research. But not only about tigers, his latest obsession, but also about rhinos, as well as the importance of preserving biodiversity and wildlife for global health. "The more we interact with this wildlife, the more we empty the forest and the more likely it is that other viruses will appear. We are going to have more of these epidemics and the trade in these species is one of the most dangerous activities. Something has to be done," warns the photographer, but is it perhaps too late to do anything about it? "It is already hopeful to start discussing the issue, but when is the right time? I don't know. Maybe we should have started 510 years ago, maybe it's too late in the game, maybe not," answers the director, who humbly doubts whether the subject matter of his film will interest many. What he has no doubt about is that he would go back to pretending to eat meat if that gesture would save an animal species from extinction.
About the FIRM
Editor of Planeta Futuro, specialising in children in developing countries. She has spent most of her career at EL PAÍS. She previously worked in local information for the Andalusian delegation of EL MUNDO and in Culture for the newspaper Granada Hoy. She holds a degree in Journalism from the University of Malaga and a Master's degree in Journalism from EL PAÍS.