Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Recent sighting holds hope for China's wild tigers

Li Zhang – June 12, 2007 – 5:00am

For the first time ever, scientists recently captured clear footage of a wild Indo-Chinese tiger in a nature reserve in China's southeastern Yunnan Province. The researchers used infrared cameras as part of wildlife monitoring and protection project supported jointly by the Xishuangbanna National Nature Conservation Protected Areas Management in Shangyong, Beijing Normal University Institute of Ecology, and the International Species Protection Project.

According to field studies and research from the late 1990s, the population of Indo-Chinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti ) in Yunnan is extremely low, and the tiger has disappeared from some areas of the province altogether. Until now, no definitive evidence had surfaced for nearly ten years to prove that the tiger still existed in the wild in southwestern China, although field researchers had recorded footprints and other clues indicating the large cat's presence in the region.

Wang Bin, managing researcher at the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Shangyong, and Beijing Normal University doctoral student Feng Limin have led the Shangyong Biodiversity Protection Effectiveness Monitoring Project since 2005. They discovered Indo-Chinese tiger footprints in the Shangyong protected area and set up infrared cameras using field survey methodologies to try to record and monitor potential activity of the cat and other wild animals.

The recent live footage of the tiger confirms the existence of an adult female, and experts believe this is powerful evidence that the Indo-Chinese tiger still exists in the wild within the boundaries of Yunnan Province. It also indicates the success of work at the national, provincial, and community levels to protect Xishuangbanna's natural areas from poachers, primarily through anti-poaching patrols and positive public participation from communities living on the periphery of the protected area.

Experts with the International Species Protection Project note that the discovery of the Indo-Chinese tiger in the wild may indicate that the tiger's population is stabilizing and becoming healthier—proving that the protective status of Xishuangbanna is working and that local ecosystems are still functioning. However, tiger and other wild animal populations in Asia continue to decline in the face of threats like illegal hunting and habitat destruction from logging, industrial farming, and tree plantations. Protecting the tiger's habitat and saving it from extinction in the wild will require not just Chinese efforts, but transnational cooperation with the neighboring countries of Burma and Laos.

China's wild tiger situation is still very precarious. Currently, four subspecies in the country—the Northeast China tiger, the South China tiger, the Indo-Chinese tiger, and the Bengal tiger—have wild populations below 50 individuals. While the protection of their natural habitat is key to the survival of these animals, time is pressing and the danger of extinction remains a strong possibility. It is critical that we seize this moment to continue anti-poaching, conserve habitats, and increase investment so that China can protect its wild tiger populations from complete extinction.

Li Zhang is Ph.D. & Associate Professor with Institute of Ecology, Beijing Normal University.

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