Turning the tide on big cat trade: Expert opinion on trends and conservation lessons from the Republic of Korea

Unsustainable trade in big cats affects all species in the genus, Panthera, and is one of the foremost threats to their conservation. To provide further insight into the impact of policy interventions intended to address this issue, we examine the case study of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), which in the early 1990s was one of the world’s largest importers of tiger (Panthera tigris) bone and a major manufacturer of tiger-derived medicinal products. In 1993, South Korea became a Party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and introduced a ban on commercial trade in CITES Appendix I-listed big cats a year later. We used an expert-based questionnaire survey and an exploration of the CITES trade database to investigate what has since happened to big cat trade in South Korea. Expert opinion suggested that big cat trade has likely substantially reduced since the early 1990s, as a result of the trade ban and broad socioeconomic changes. However, illegal trade has not been eradicated entirely and we were able to confirm that products reportedly derived from big cats were still publicly available for sale on a range of Korean online marketplaces, sometimes openly. The items most commonly reported by respondents from post-1994 trade and supported by expert-led evidence were tiger and leopard (Panthera pardus) skins and tiger bone wine. Although South Korea may provide a useful case study of a historically significant consumer country for tiger which has made strong progress in addressing unsustainable levels of big cat trade within a short period of time, there remains a need to address recalcitrant small-scale, illegal trade. We also recommend further investigation regarding reports of South Korean nationals being involved in illegal trade in tiger-derived products in Southeast Asia.

Elves-Powell J, Lee H, Axmacher JC, Durant SM (2024) Turning the tide on big cat trade: Expert opinion on trends and conservation lessons from the Republic of Korea. PLOS ONE 19(5): e0299783. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0299783

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