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India on a tiger hunt in China



ASIA TIMES
Neeta Lal, 26th August, 20009

NEW DELHI - Indian Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh - the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's first minister to visit China - is on a four-day trip to Beijing this week for bilateral talks on an array of ecological issues.

Apart from seeking increased bilateral cooperation on climate change, the issue that has dominated the minister's unfolding agenda is a vital conservation problem that has bothered India for years - China-led tiger poaching in India.

The poaching - directly linked to international trade through Nepal and Myanmar into China - has over the years led to an alarming plummet in the population of the Royal Bengal tiger, India's national animal.

Officially, domestic trade in tiger and leopard parts is illegal in China. But black-market businesses abound to cater to China's ever-growing demand for tiger parts to use in libido-enhancing and aphrodisiacal drugs. This demand fuels the smuggling of expensive tiger parts - skin, claws, teeth, penises and whiskers - out of India via neighboring countries and into China.

China also maintains scores of controversial tiger farms that are used to harvest the big cats' body parts. Experts estimate that some 4,000 cats are bred on these farms for use in traditional Chinese medicine in the wake of China's spiraling healthcare costs.

Ramesh has made a special request to China for an "active liaison" with Nepal to control tiger trafficking along the Indian border. He has also pushed for a phasing-out of tiger farms and the destruction of stockpiles of tiger parts. In recent months, there has been increasing speculation that China may lift its ban on trade in tiger parts imposed in 1993. This move, experts believe, could prove devastating for tiger conservation efforts in India.

"We need to intensify efforts with the Chinese so that international tiger trade networks are smashed," Ramesh, 55, told the Hindustan Times. "Poaching in India is directly linked to international trade into China."

The minister asked China to "assure increased enforcement to curb the tiger/leopard skin and bone trade considering it is the Year of the Tiger in 2010". He has also sought an assurance from his Chinese counterpart - Minister for Environment Protection Zhou Shengxian - that China will sensitize its consumers to the problem and discourage trade in tiger parts.

In the past, India has expressed uneasiness about China's appetite for tiger parts smuggled out of India. Still, tiger poaching continues to thrive along the Indo-Chinese border, with the Chinese authorities allegedly turning a blind eye to the problem. Tiger poaching and the smuggling of tiger skins is now the second-most common crime along the Indo-China border after the illicit trade of narcotics.

This flourishing commerce is having a catastrophic effect on India's endangered national animal. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), only about 1,300 tigers remain in the wild in India, down from about 15,000 two decades ago. Other Asian countries have tiger populations, but the count is negligible when compared to India.

The Indian government's attempt to create 37 tiger reserves - spread across 19 states - has failed to provide a safe haven from poaching. The WPSI estimates that India has lost 66 tigers in 2009, with as many 23 shot by poachers.

Conservation of India's remaining tigers is a top priority for the UPA government. With the urging of conservationists and activists, the government has doubled the budgetary allocation for Project Tiger - India's flagship tiger conservation program launched in 1973 under the aegis of former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

When Ramesh took charge of the Environment Ministry a few months ago, he took steps to strengthen legislation to deter poaching and other illegal activities in forest reserves. He also created the National Green Tribunal, a court that will hear all cases relating to the environment and forests. Ramesh has claimed he intends to bolster the Wildlife Protection Act and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau as well.

In a bid to augment the country's tiger population, state governments are adopting measures to aid breeding. This year, at the Sariska Tiger Reserve, three tigers - a male and two females - were relocated from Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to breed.

According to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "India's growth is increasingly taking place at the cost of its environment." The premier's warning comes in the wake of the just-released State of the Environment Report which pointed out that at least 45% of India's land is environmentally "degraded". Air pollution is rising, the report claims, and India's flora and fauna are diminishing.

Manmohan has emphasized that to contain further decline of India's natural resources, stringent regulation and incentives are required along with initiatives to establish a balance between growth and the environment.

Ramesh has maintained that New Delhi considers Beijing an "important ally" in the battle against vital ecological issues. The minister's current visit to China reinforces India's desire to push the agenda forward.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

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