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The Tiger’s Last Sigh

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 44
November 07, 2009

If China does not curb its appetite for tiger body parts, the world’s most majestic animal will soon be relegated to history

THE PRIMARY reason why India continues to lose its tigers is the relentless demand for tiger parts from China. A depressing new report, released in Delhi on October 22 by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based NGO, illustrates how widespread the sale of tiger skins and bones is in China.

Tigers are critically endangered. The worldwide population of wild tigers has plummeted to perhaps 3,100, including 1,400 in India and 30 to 50 in China. We are scraping the barrel; some experts believe that the end of free-ranging wild tigers is near.

You would think that these shocking figures would galvanise the world to pull out all the stops to save, arguably, the most charismatic mammal on this planet. No other animal in the world has influenced culture, history or religion as much as the tiger. It is the national animal of six countries, including India. There is probably not a child that hasn’t heard of the tiger – it appears in their comics, games, cereal packets. Indeed, probably no other animal on our planet deserves more to be respected and saved from extinction.

The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) collaborates closely with EIA and this is the sixth year that EIA has carried out an investigation into the illegal tiger trade in China. Each year the findings are given to the Chinese government and although trade in tiger parts has been banned in China since 1993, enforcement agencies still continue to turn a blind eye to the trade. With growing wealth, prices are sky-rocketing: tiger skins are sold in China for $11,660 to $21,860 and tiger bones for $1,250 per kilo.

In just three weeks in July and August this year, EIA’s covert investigation team was offered four tiger skins, 12 leopard skins, 11 snow leopard skins and two clouded leopard skins, along with various other pieces of skin, bones and skulls. At a horse festival in Tibet, they witnessed nine people wearing tiger skins and 25 people draped in leopard skins, “in full view of the local authorities”. When asked, the traders said that most of the big cat skins and bones were smuggled from India
I could write reams about the negligence on our home turf; the disastrous combination of poor management, lax enforcement, poaching, conflict and loss of tiger prey species and habitat. But India is now committed to playing a strong role in saving the tiger. The government is pouring funds into tiger conservation measures; to provide security to wild tigers and the inviolate space they need to flourish. The objective is not to save tigers in fenced-in safari parks, but to continue to have wild, freeranging tigers and to secure the wilderness and complex web of life that the species represents.

The Chinese ‘Year of the Tiger’ starts on February 14, 2010. Is it too much to hope that China will listen to world opinion and:

  • Cooperate with India and Nepal to curb the illegal trade in big cat skins
  • Send a strong message to the world, and to consumers in China, that they are committed to their 1993 ban in tiger and leopard parts
  • Improve enforcement and invest in a dedicated intelligence- led wildlife enforcement team
  • Fulfill the decision of cites to phase out tiger farms
  • Consolidate and destroy stockpiles of tiger body parts to demonstrate to the world its commitment to end this illegal trade.

In August this year, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh made a bold step in bringing up the subject with his counterpart in China. But despite worldwide support to these requests, China remains uncooperative. If China continues to ignore this growing international pressure, then I believe we will have lost the battle to save the tiger.

Belinda Wright is a Tiger conservationist and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI)




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