Friday, April 25, 2008

Burning bright

Contrary to popular belief, Europe is not powerless to prevent the extinction of the tiger, as the inaugural Tiger Day illustrated.

Cross-party consensus is a rare thing in the European parliament. But sometimes an issue arises that allows tribal lines to be crossed and party colours to be ignored. Last week, when I hosted the inaugural Tiger Day in Brussels, was one of those occasions.

As chair of the delegation for EU relations with India, I had known for some time that tiger numbers in Asia were falling. However, it wasn't until a census was published in February that the full extent of this decline became apparent. Where 40,000 tigers had once roamed, estimates now indicated that there could be as few as 1,400 left.

A myriad of factors have left the tiger - voted "the world's favourite animal" in 2004 - in such a perilous state. With an appetite for status symbols to match its size, the huge emerging Chinese middle-class has made tiger skins a valuable commodity. And profits are huge, too. A poacher can make up to $16,000 on a tiger skin that costs him as little as $1,600 to obtain. With fines as small as $1,000, legal deterrents are often useless.

Most European citizens are united in their condemnation of the use of tiger products for fashion and decoration. But the profit doesn't end there. Stripping away the iconic skin, poachers find another commodity: tiger bone. Despite a lack of scientific evidence, Chinese medicine continues to subscribe to the myth that the bone has pharmaceutical benefits. This belief may well lead to the tiger's extinction.

So Europeans have as much a right to fear for the tiger as anyone. What's more, we have much to bring to the struggle. Centuries of scientific progress have taught us that medicine must be based on empirical fact rather than legend or faith. To bring this argument to bear is not to trample on Asian practices through a new form of cultural imperialism. Rather, it is to speak truth to the vanities of the Chinese middle-class. Many Chinese people now have new and more liberal economic rights. They need to start practising the economic responsibility to match.

What can the EU do about the decimation of a wildlife population thousands of miles away from Europe? Since I've been involved with this campaign, I've been asked this question many times. I always respond with one of my own: who else can act, if the EU doesn't? Europe can play the role of disinterested partner more convincingly than regional powers. As a case in point, the Chinese government was recently lobbied to drop its ban on the trade in tiger parts by tiger farmers (you read that right - the animals are now farmed for their skin). By its very nature the EU also has the skills, resources and expertise to advise how best to tackle cross-border smuggling.

European parliament Tiger Day has been and gone, but as far as I am concerned we have only just started. I have called on the EU to adopt a series of measures against the trade, and to support the excellent work that environmental groups are carrying out. Only through cooperation will we ensure that the tiger remains a symbol of beauty for generations to come.

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