Year of Tiger poses danger for big cats

Only 1,000 animals are left in the country. Experts say this is the result of an increased demand for the animal's body parts in China.

NEW DELHI // The Chinese Year of the Tiger is shaping up as anything but a celebration for one of the world's most magnificent animals. India is reporting an abrupt increase in the number of tigers killed by poachers who feed China's insatiable appetite for wild tiger parts.

"What we're seeing is a species slipping through our fingers because of the non-co-operation of a single nation, and I think that's very sad indeed," said Belinda Wright, the executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). "As a conservationist and an environmentalist, their stand and their attitude is appalling. And very tragic, actually." Last week, India's government-led National Tiger Conservation Authority described 2009 as "a very bad year", revealing that 86 tigers were killed, more than double the number in 2008.

A further four deaths occurred in the first two weeks of this year, three of them before January 6. The World Wildlife Fund warned yesterday that the wild tiger faced extinction in China itself after its numbers have been drastically cut by poaching and the destruction of its natural habitat. "If there are no urgent measures taken, there is a high risk that the wild tiger will go extinct," Zhu Chunquan, the conservation director of biodiversity at WWF China, said.

Mr Zhu said China's State Forestry Administration estimated that there were 50 tigers left in the nation's wilderness. India only has 1,000 tigers left, despite strenuous efforts to protect an animal that in the country is a symbol of national pride. More than 100,000 tigers prowled India's forests 100 years ago, but decades of hunting and habitat encroachment meant that by the 1970s the number had been drastically reduced.

India then spent 30 years dragging its national animal back from the brink of extinction. By 2002, about 4,000 tigers were prowling India's network of 37 tiger reserves. Then the Chinese economy started to boom, and demand for raw tiger parts skyrocketed. Hundreds of tigers started to disappear again each year, and now, with the Year of the Tiger starting on February 14, more are being poached. The real number of tiger deaths is certainly much higher than official figures, which are based on tiger parts seized at the border - estimated at only 10 per cent of the illegal trade.

China's economic boom has created intense demand for such speciality products as tiger skins, tiger-blood wine and powdered tiger bone. Although the trade remains illegal in China, Indian conservationists accuse Beijing of not doing enough to prevent it. The Chinese embassy in New Delhi declined to respond to specific accusations, but in a statement said laws in China clearly defined smuggling and selling of tiger-related products as crimes, and that perpetrators were strictly punished according to the law.

"In recent years, all concerned departments at all levels have continuously organised local law enforcement actions quickly, cracking down on crimes related to wildlife," an embassy spokesman said, reading from the statement. "These crimes have been brought under effective control." Valmik Thapar, one of India's best-known tiger conservationists, said: "This is just a lot of rhetoric and no action. The major threat is China, it remains China, it always has been China."

There is no demand for tiger parts in India, but India does also have a responsibility for enforcement, and conservationists are candid about the system's flaws. Mr Thapar said that the central government had initiated many tiger conservation programmes and thrown a lot of money at the problem, but enforcement remained the responsibility of the states, where bureaucratic indifference was the norm. "We have a miserable system, a useless system," he said. "There is no governance to speak of."

More than half of the positions for forest rangers, responsible for defending the tiger against poachers, are unfilled. The average age of unarmed forest rangers is 50; their chances of facing down a gang of poachers armed with AK-47s are slim. They also get little co-operation in the tiger reserves where tribal people living there are poor and welcome payment for tip-offs about recent tiger kills. A national wildlife service staffed by properly armed, trained and motivated locals is now being considered, but the minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, was unavailable to provide details.

Meanwhile, prices for wild tiger are doubling each year; every part of an animal is sought after, from the skin to the bones to the eyeballs, whiskers and even the testicles. A poacher earns 20,000 rupees (Dh1,600) for an Indian tiger killed in one of the reserves, but on the international market, it fetches one million rupees, with the skin alone priced at 50,000 rupees or more in Beijing or Shanghai. Poachers have emptied two of India's 37 protected tiger reserves; 10 are considered to be in poor shape, and likely to become "tiger-free" soon, according to government figures.

Poachers are also resorting to more extreme methods to increase their kills. Water ponds and pools used by tigers are being poisoned, which may explain why last year, nearly two-thirds of the tiger deaths were recorded as "found dead", or animal carcasses. This is another reason why many believe that the rate of tigers death right now is much higher than official statistics. China has discussed legalising the tiger trade, which would involve flooding a controlled market with parts from registered tiger farms, and more than 4,000 tigers have been bred so far. In theory, this would cut prices drastically and kill the poaching incentive, but in practice, surveys show that Chinese consumers only want wild tiger and would reject farmed tiger products.

"Everyone would try to get the last supplies of wild tiger into this haven of legality," Mr Thapar said. Conservationists are infuriated with China's apparent indifference to the fate of the Chinese symbol of dignity, ferocity and courage. "I've been to China many times and they just shrug," Ms Wright said. "They simply don't care what the international community thinks. They just don't care about international opinion."