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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rare Species: The World's New Contraband

NEW DELHI -- It began when a man who described himself as a buyer for duty-free shops in the Persian Gulf met in a posh Katmandu hotel with a scruffy Kashmiri trader. They sized each other up and talked prices, the Kashmiri offering small but enticing samples of the exotic animal furs he could deliver if they became partners.

Two weeks later in Srinagar, the war-torn summer capital of Kashmir, the trader laid out furs and garments made from 1,366 of the world's most endangered cats, including tigers, snow leopards and clouded leopards. One Bengal tiger skin was more than 14-feet long.

The buyer left, saying he was going to get money. But, when he returned, it was in his true role as an undercover investigator, leading 36 police officers on one of India's largest anti-poaching sting operations.

"People were celebrating and congratulating and thanking me, but it was a sad sight," the investigator said of the haul, worth more than $1 million on the international market. "I never feel happy when I see it."

The Nov. 5 raid was the latest evidence that poaching, which had been curtailed in India in recent decades, has returned with a vengeance and threatens some of the world's most beautiful and exotic animals with extinction.

Conservationists warn that the estimated 5,000 tigers left in the wild around the world could be gone in a few years, victims of a booming market for wildlife products that is second only to narcotics as the contraband of choice for international smugglers.

"Unless we take immediate and drastic action, I don't believe there will be any tigers left in the world in three to five years," said Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, a private group that sponsored the undercover raid in Kashmir.

In India, where hunters earlier this century could bag dozens of tigers on a single safari, an even more lethal threat to the species has emerged: Trading in tiger bone for traditional Oriental medicines which is especially popular in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

"Nearly every part of a tiger, including its feces," which are used for boils and hemorrhoids, "has a prescribed benefit according to the tenets of Chinese medicine," said a report earlier this year by Traffic International, the trade-monitoring arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature. The rhinoceros, another of the world's most endangered animals, is prized for its horn.

The booming economies and personal incomes of Southeast Asia have caused demand and prices to soar, lifting the international trade in wildlife products to an estimated $6 billion-a-year business.

In the pharmacies of Hong Kong, a two-pound (approximately one-kilogram) rhino horn sells for as much as $45,000. In Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup (to boost virility) goes for $320, and a pair of eyes (to fight epilepsy and malaria) for $170.

The demand for bones and skins, occasional hunting for sport, destruction of wildlife habitat and the effects of inbreeding have all led to an alarming reduction in tiger and rhino populations around the world.

More than 90 percent of the world's rhinos have disappeared during the past 20 years, leaving fewer than 10,000.

Three of the eight tiger subspecies are now extinct. Conservationists estimate that there are only 30 wild tigers left in China. In India, home to about 60 percent of the world's remaining tigers, experts say poaching has reached crisis proportions.