Poachers set to cash in on Year of the Tiger
Matt Wade HERALD CORRESPONDENT
December 18, 2009 - 12:10AM
RANTHAMBORE, Rajasthan: India's wild tigers already compete for survival with nearly 1.2 billion people. But conservationists warn that a new threat looms - the Chinese New Year.
February 14 marks the start of the Year of the Tiger and there are fears this will fuel the illicit trade in the body parts of India's magnificent big cats.
Demand for tiger parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines has contributed to a decline in Indian tiger numbers.
Now a report by a British non-government organisation, the Environmental Investigation Agency, says tiger-skin dealers in China are expecting higher profits because ''everyone will want a tiger skin'' next year.
''Traders were aware of the scarcity of wild tigers and of the forthcoming Chinese Year of the Tiger and view this as an opportunity to increase profits,'' the report says.
Conservationists have accused China of not doing enough to stamp out trade in tiger parts and the Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, has made no secret of his concern, stating that the new year posed a ''threat to tigers in India''. In August, he asked China for more help in cracking down on the trade in tiger parts.
After the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, launched Project Tiger in 1973, tiger numbers rose steadily, from about 1800 in the early 1970s to more than 4000 in 1989.
But then manufacturers of traditional Chinese medicines turned to India for supplies because China's tiger population had been devastated, said Belinda Wright, a tiger conservationist and founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
''It's been a dreadful, dreadful battle since the early 1990s,'' she said. ''What changed was this huge demand for tiger parts from China.''
The trade relies on traditional Indian poaching communities who live next to tiger habitats.
Villagers are attracted to poaching by the payments offered by big-city buyers.
Women often act as carriers, taking the tiger parts on public transport to middlemen in cities like Delhi. The merchandise is then smuggled into China using traditional trading routes, often via Nepal and Burma.
Traditional medicine uses parts including the bones, penis, testicles, whiskers, eyeballs, skin tissue and blood.
The Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan had a poaching crisis between 2002 and 2004 when 22 tigers went missing. About 40 poachers were arrested and charged. A local organisation, Tiger Watch, determined that attempts to guard the park were not enough. It started programs to improve education, health care and work opportunities for local poachers. The group also runs education programs to dissuade young people from taking up poaching.
Goverdhan Rathore, a conservationist and hotel owner at Ranthambore, said social and economic development programs in local villages given to poaching had promoted the welfare of people and tigers.
''In the last two years there has been a dramatic increase in the tiger population inside Ranthambore because poaching is gone,'' he said.
Poaching is not the only challenge. The sheer size of India's population has resulted in the fragmentation and degradation of tiger habitats.
Since Project Tiger began 36 years ago, India's population has almost doubled. And many of those who live near tiger habitats are among the world's poorest people. They often have no choice but to plunder the natural resources that tigers, and their prey, need.
Surveys have revealed that the biggest decline in tiger numbers has occurred in the poorer states of central India, which have traditionally had the highest concentration of tigers.
The Government, led by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has made tiger conservation a priority and increased funding for the cause.
But India's unwieldy political system makes it difficult for national authorities to co-ordinate tiger conservation.
Conservationists say the state governments directly responsible for forestry and park management often do not have the political will, or the expertise, to properly manage tiger populations. Programs conceived in the cities are not matched by competent administration inside the forests where tigers live.
''Park authorities, no matter where they are in India, are not trustworthy,'' Mr Rathore said. ''They must be made more accountable.''
Indians were shocked last year when the most recent census showed just 1411 tigers were left in the wild - a decline of 60 per cent in a decade. Some conservationists believe even that figure was inflated, and one said the true number was fewer than 900.
Now the Year of the Tiger threatens to drive the tally even lower.