The world’s few remaining tigers must be left free to burn bright

September 3, 2009

The world’s dwindling tiger colonies are facing yet another threat, this time from China’s plan to sanction the use of lawfully sourced tiger pelts.

The fear is that, by loosening its ban on the trading of any tiger parts, China will spur poaching in India, which is home to the largest remaining wild tiger population.

China argues that while it may be host to only 30 or 40 tigers living in the wild, it has 5,000 more that have been reared on farms. Such farms were created as tourist attractions, but few doubt that their owners hope to use the cats to produce health tonics. Tiger bone wine is especially prized as a pick-me-up. Though pricey, it grows ever more affordable the richer the Chinese get.

What worries conservationists is that once any trade in tiger parts gains official blessing, policing the traffic will become difficult. India fears that as demand for tiger products grows, it will find itself becoming an even more attractive target for poachers: breeding tigers in captivity in China looks promising, but it will always cost more than slipping a poacher as little as £5 for a carcass that traffickers then transport to China.

India already detects China’s swelling wealth, and a companion rise in its appetite for traditional medicines, as a factor in the decline of its own tiger numbers. Pressured also by a loss of both habitat and prey, India’s tiger population shrank to just 1,411 in February last year from 3,642 in 2002 and 40,000 or so a century ago. India fears that any further incentive for poaching might drive tigers to extinction in the wild.

However heady their benefits, tiger bone tonics are hardly worth the risk of a beast of such fearful symmetry vanishing for ever from our jungles.

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