With no clear rules and regulations within Europe, the continent’s captive populations are putting wild tiger populations elsewhere in the world at risk of extinction. Our investigation monitored the illegal tiger trade between Italy, France and Southeast Asia. We collated data on arrests, court cases and convictions, and monitored several high-profile cases to better understand why and how illegal trade takes place. We found that a significant lack of data in Europe is stimulating trafficking of tigers, and uncovered and published new information about the number of tigers in each country and how many seizures took place in recent years.
Our investigation shone a light on two major issues when it comes to illegal tiger trade in Europe. The first was the lack of data concerning the number of wild tigers in captivity. When trying to ascertain how many tigers were being held in captivity in Italy, we received different and incongruous numbers from the Ministry of Ecological Transition and CITES.
The second was about the poor conditions in which wild animals are kept at parks, zoos, circuses or private homes. By way of example, we focused on a case that involved the gross ill-treatment of 10 tigers who were transported from Italy to Dagestan, Russia. The starving, thirsty and filthy tigers had been transported for six days across some 2,000km, and one had died by the time they were stopped by border guards at the crossing between Poland and Belarus in October 2019.
The direct links between these two issues were shown when our investigation was highlighted in the Italian Parliament in April 2021. LAV (the Anti-Vivisection Association) engaged with our investigation throughout, and in the month following its publication asked Parliament to “indicate the official numbers concerning the captivity of wild tigers in Italy, and what initiatives, in the face of the data possessed, they deem necessary to ensure the public safety and ascertain the actual conditions in which these animals are kept”.
Beyond this, we received multiple follow-ups requesting further information from the investigations including law enforcement personnel, international watchdog agencies, and other media outlets wanting to build on our work.
This project also served as a template to investigate transnational illicit timber trade between Europe and Asia. We were awarded this grant in 2021 and, working with the same team (with a new addition), will publish in the first quarter of 2022.
All of the data we collected was published on our #WildEye Europe mapping tool. This is an open-source tool built using Mapbox. Both reporters—based in Italy and France— as well as a data wrangler worked with Four Paws (an animal welfare NGO) to collect data. This information was then aggregated, analysed and included on our mapping platform. We also engaged with law enforcement agencies and the Italian and French governments to collect related data, focusing on recent cases. We analysed and visualised the data using Google Sheets, Tableau Public, Terminal (iTerm2) and Flourish. These were used to extract information about trade routes, methods of transport, related entities (individuals, companies and organisations), and court case outcomes. Our analysis and visualisations formed the backbone of each investigation.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Our biggest challenge was obtaining official data. We overcame this by working with NGOs, law enforcement and government agencies to access the data we needed. This data, including the number of tigers registered in Italy and France, highlighted a lack of transparency and how difficult it is to get this kind of information. When we collated the data and analysed it, we discovered huge discrepancies in the official figures – our investigations helped provide clarity and transparency.
We had some pressure from tiger breeders, even though they were interviewed, once the investigation had been published. In Italy, we were contacted by the president of the Trainers and Breeders Union after publication to discuss the “Polish case”. In his opinion we didn’t write the correct version of events, although the facts included in our investigation are well documented by official sources and testimonies.
Travel restrictions also made conducting interviews and meeting with law enforcement agencies challenging. Our reporters were able to do this once some restrictions were lifted, but had to rely mostly on phone calls, emails and online-based resources.
What can others learn from this project?
All of the NGOs we interviewed and used as resources gave positive input with regards to our published investigation. The French Environmental Journalists Association shared the France investigation and Swim (a group of science writers in Italy) shared the Italy investigation. We will continue to monitor their responses and track further impact. We (and some of the NGOs and officials we interviewed) view our investigation as an important addition to the debate around the need for stronger laws, legislation and regulations around illegal wildlife trade, and we hope to see these changes come into effect going forward.
We also hope to see continued use of #WildEye Europe, and for other journalists to keep investigating the illegal tiger trade, which continues to threaten this endangered species. Like with previous iterations of this mapping tool, we hope to encourage others to test similar methods of creating, collating and visualising large datasets of their own.
We have also shown how to turn data into a compelling and important environmental story. By training journalists how to work the tool, we have published numerous investigations that use #WildEye data to tell their stories, lending our voice to issues around the law, health, safety, corruption and illicit financial flow. We see these stories as demonstrating what newsworthy and good quality data journalism looks like.