Will it be a ‘Year of the [extinct] Tiger’?
Written by Imelda V. Abaño / Correspondent
Tuesday, 26 January 2010 10:49
THE Chinese New Year in February marks 2010 as the “Year of the Tiger,” but conservationists worry the Chinese zodiac may actually speed up the tigers’ extinction, with demand for its skin and body parts enticing poachers to hunt the few wild tigers that remain in the forests in Asia.
The number of tigers, among the planet’s most iconic and secretive creatures, in the Greater Mekong—an area that includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam—has plummeted from an estimated 1,200 during the last Year of the Tiger in 1998 to about 350 today.
The big cat’s population, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report “Tigers on the Brink: Facing up to the Challenge in the Greater Mekong” released on Monday, has fallen by more than 70 percent in slightly more than a decade in the Greater Mekong, with the region’s five countries containing only 350 tigers.
According to the WWF Report, the decline is reflected in the global wild-tiger population, which is at an all-time low of 3,200—down from an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 during the last Year of the Tiger.
The report says increasing demand for tiger body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine and habitat fragmentation from unsustainable regional infrastructure development have driven the decline of the region’s Indochinese tiger population.
With the Year of the Tiger fast approaching, tiger items are hot sellers. Tiger skin, which can sell for high prices in China and elsewhere in Asia, is used for furniture and for decoration. Their body parts are used in traditional medicine and as aphrodisiacs. A set of genuine tiger whiskers is also considered a lucky token to ward off evil.
The tiger is also considered a symbol of power, courage, energy and good luck in China.
“Decisive action must be taken to ensure this iconic subspecies does not reach the point of no return,” said Nick Cox, coordinator of the WWF Greater Mekong Tiger Programme. “There is a potential for tiger populations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to become locally extinct by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022, if we don’t step up actions to protect them.”
Indochinese tigers historically were found in abundance across the Greater Mekong region. Today, there are no more than 30 individual tigers per country in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The remaining populations are predominantly found in the Kayah Karen Tenasserim mountain border between Thailand and Myanmar.
However, despite these negative trends there is still time to save the Greater Mekong’s tigers. The region contains the largest combined tiger habitat in the world. Forest landscapes spanning 540,000 km2, or roughly the size of France, are priority areas for current tiger- conservation efforts.
“This region has huge potential to increase tiger numbers, but only if there are bold and coordinated efforts across the region and of an unprecedented scale that can protect existing tigers, tiger prey and their habitat,” said Cox.
“Just as with many of the other challenges of sustainability—such as climate change, pandemic disease, or poverty—the crisis facing tigers overwhelms local capabilities and transcends national boundaries,” according to a statement by World Bank president Robert Zoellick. “This is a problem that cannot be handled by individual nations alone. It requires an alliance of strong local commitment backed by deep international support.”
In order to bring awareness to the urgent plight of these magnificent creatures, efforts to keep the big cats from extinction will be stepped up this year. Because the United Nations designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and because 2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the WWF has created a listing of the 10 most critically important endangered animals that require special monitoring.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) List, three of the nine main subspecies, the Bali tiger, Caspian tiger and Javan tiger, are now extinct. And there has been no confirmed sighting of the South China tiger for 25 years.
Tigers were placed at the top of the 10 most critically endangered animals in the Ten to Watch in 2010.