China marks year of tiger with drive to save biggest cat
Chinese government, World Bank and NGOs co-operating on multimillion-dollar scheme to protect Amur tiger
Jonathan Watts in Hunchun
Sunday 7 February 2010 17.08 GMT
Taking turns to act as human ploughs, Liang Jianmin and his tiger survey team forge through mile after mile of knee-deep snow in the mountain forests near China’s frozen mountain border with Siberia.
From dawn to dusk they track, looking for droppings, paw prints, bark scratchings, scraps of fur caught on twigs and fences, any sign that the Amur tiger – the biggest cat species in the world – is still alive in the wilds of China.
Elsewhere in Hunchun, other teams scour the slopes and valleys near the North Korean border, while in Russia, zoologists and conservation groups trudge through the taiga forest with the same goal: measuring the scale of the challenge facing the most ambitious effort yet to save the endangered predator.
Next week, China will start the year of the tiger with fireworks, feasting and, the Guardian has learned, a new drive by the government, the World Bank and conservation groups to halt the perilous decline of Asia’s most powerful wildlife symbol.
Since the last tiger year, in 1998, the wild population of the animal worldwide has almost halved to about 3,200 due to habitat loss, economic development and poaching for hides and traditional medicine.
China has been among the worst affected. The South China tiger, which has not been seen for many years, is feared to have followed the Bali, Caspian and Java subspecies into extinction in the wild. In the country’s north, the population of the Amur tiger – which can grow to three metres in length and 300 kilograms – is estimated at 18 to 22.
Many of these animals are isolated from one another by roads and railways, making it difficult for them to breed.
The conservation group WWF warns that the animal may be extinct in the wild in China within three decades if current trends continue. The tiger is the group’s priority for 2010.
Across the world, other would-be saviours are taking advantage of the Chinese zodiac to press home the need for changes in consumption and development patterns.
Last week, the first Asian ministerial conference on tiger conservation, in Hua Hin, Thailand, set a goal of doubling the wild population by the start of the next tiger year, in 2022.
The Chinese government recently issued a directive calling for increased protection of wild tigers through habitat management, public education and stronger law enforcement action. In September, Vladivostok will host the first tiger summit, which is expected to be co-hosted by the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick. While disputes remain about Chinese tiger farming and the use of tiger parts in traditional medicine, there are signs of co-operation.
The Guardian has learned that the World Bank, NGOs and the Chinese government are discussing a three-stage, multimillion-dollar scheme to protect the Amur tiger. Measures will include acquiring land for expanded reserves, linking tiger communities, relocating residents, training local officials and reconfiguring forestry management to allow for sustainable economic use and cohabitation by predators and prey species.
The survey in Hunchun and Siberia is a preliminary step that shows an unprecedented level of co-operation between China, Russia, the World Bank and conservation groups.
In the first week, the team found a piece of tiger fur caught on a fence, and droppings and sightings of the main prey species – wild boar and sika deer – as well as snares and traps left by poachers.
The main threat comes from economic development, which intrudes into the tiger’s habitat. In some places it takes the form of roads or railways; elsewhere, it is logging, mines and frog farms.
“Infrastructure construction has blocked the tiger’s migration channels and the rising population density has eaten into the tiger’s territory,” warned Wu Zhigang, of the Jilin Science Academy as he pressed through the snow. “We must restore these channels by building elevated roads or tunnels.”
Wu, one of China’s leading tiger experts, said the government was drawing up plans for a tiger-friendly model of forestry management that would be presented at a forum in the spring.
The people in Hunchun will need to be convinced that it is in their interests to protect an animal often seen as a threat. In the last three years there have been more than 120 tiger attacks on farm animals and one human death.
Compensation has been increased. Che Jinxia, the last woman to survive an attack, received more than 50,000 yuan (about £5,000), a record.
The Wildlife Conservation Society is also trying to foster tiger eco-tourism in the region, partly through the launch last November of an annual Hunchun tiger festival. It will be expanded this year with a conservation marathon, exhibitions, forums, screenings and tiger-themed essay and art competitions.
“We want to appeal to nature lovers by showing that the tiger habitat is an ideal environment,” said Sun Quanhai, the local director of the society. ”Hunchun’s forest coverage exceeds 80%. The local government have realised the importance of conservation and decided to make Hunchun the ‘tiger town’ of China.”
Whether the current spirit of optimism and co-operation can be sustained throughout the tiger year is, however, far from certain.
China’s tiger farmers, who have bred more than 5,000 animals, are pushing for a relaxation of the ban on the trade of tiger parts in the hope of selling bones and penises for traditional medicine.
If this plan is submitted to the next CITES (convention on international trade in endangered species) meeting in Doha in March, it could undermine the goodwill that has built up in recent months.
Tiger Woods and Madonna are at the frontline of a controversial, celebrity-backed project to protect tigers in their natural habitat. The two South China tigers were raised in captivity and flown to a reserve in South Africa for training on how to survive in the wild. In a semi-protected environment, they and other tigers have spent four years “learning” how to mate and to kill guinea fowl, antelope and blesbok.
It is hoped their offspring will eventually be prepared for a flight back to China and released into reintroduction areas in either Jiangxi and Hunan province.
The “rewilding project” has the backing of the government in Beijing and several mostly Chinese celebrities, including the actors Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, director Chen Kaige and entrepreneur David Tang.
The foundation behind it was established in 2000 by the fashion executive Li Quan. It is not clear whether Tiger Woods or Madonna have approved the use of their names.
Critics claim the project is an expensive distraction from protecting the tiger species in their natural habitat. The same criticism has been levelled at China’s captive breeding of pandas and other endangered species.
Divisions over how best to conserve rare animals partly contributed to the demise of the baiji, a freshwater dolphin found only in the Yangtze river, because foreign and Chinese zoologists were unable to agree on whether it should be taken to a reserve or looked after better in its natural environment.
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