Crunch time for the wild tiger
With the world’s population of wild tigers now estimated at just 3,200, campaigners say only urgent action – not words – can save the species.
A child born in the Chinese zodiac’s Year Of The Tiger, it is said, will become courageous, dynamic and powerful, a born leader who will inspire respect and affection. But for actual tigers born in this auspicious year, which started on February 14 and ends on February 2, 2011, the outlook isn’t so good. The last Tiger year was 12 years ago and since then the numbers of tigers living wild around the world has almost halved.
The global wild tiger population may now be as low as 3,200, a 95 per cent drop from 100 years ago,’ says Diane Walkington, head of species at wildlife charity WWF. And their habitat is 40 per cent less than just ten years ago. If we don’t take action now, numbers could drop so low they may reach a point of no return in many parts of Asia within the next ten years.’ The decrease is largely due to loss of habitat to mining, logging, farming and development, and an escalation in poaching for skins, bones and other body parts used in traditional medicines.
Weak law enforcement has failed to stop tiger poaching, while smuggling operations continue to move tiger products across borders. The internet also poses a threat, with online sales of tiger products.
At a recent CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Doha, the secretary-general admitted efforts to protect tigers had failed miserably’. And though more promises were made, conservation groups say action and enforcement are needed more than words.
China, with fewer than 50 tigers in the wild, is one of the main focuses, widely criticised for its tiger farms and the trade of tiger products. What troubles most conservationists is China’s continued
refusal to acknowledge the threat tiger farms pose to wild tigers,’ says Chris Wright, programmes officer at Born Free, which is part of an international effort to double tiger populations to at least 7,000 by 2022. China has more than 6,000 tigers languishing in farms, ostensibly developed as tourist attractions. Yet, supported by the government, they flagrantly break domestic law by selling products containing tiger parts and remain unpunished. This sends the misleading message to consumers
that trading tiger parts is legal. The only answer, if they’re serious about saving wild tigers, is to close the farms, destroy the stockpiled tiger products and focus on enforcing the existing tiger trade ban.’
Debbie Banks, head of the Environmental Investigation Agency’s (EIA) Species In Peril: Tigers campaign, says illegal tiger products continue to be found on sale in China. Last year, in just a few weeks we uncovered the skins of four tigers, 12 leopards and 12 snow leopards, and the bones of two tigers,’ she says. If we can go and find criminals selling big cat parts every year, what is the Chinese government doing?’
It’s also argued that the demand for tiger products in China leads to their killing in other countries. It’s only because of demand in China that tigers in India and Nepal are slaughtered for their skin and bone,’
says Banks. The future of the wild tiger lies largely in the hands of the Chinese government. But we’re not seeing the political and financial investment in effective enforcement measures. We know the Chinese army are among the buyers, and some traders have official protection, so corruption is definitely a big issue. Tiger numbers can recover if given protection, and that means urgent action to take out the criminal networks that control trade.’
Projects are under way to save tigers across their habitats, from India to Laos. There’s also a lot people can do, such as by buying food, clothing and timber products from sustainable sources, reducing pressure on the dwindling forests,’ says Walkington. This can help many species, not only tigers. Also, people should ensure they don’t buy anything – traditional medicines, skins, decorative items – containing tiger parts.’
To save tigers, though, will take a concerted effort from world leaders, conservation groups and the public. “Crisis’ is the only term that can convey the severity of the situation,” says Wright. With fewer than 3,200 tigers left in the wild, the need for the world to sit up and take action is more urgent now than ever.’
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