China's Year of the (endangered) Tiger
Some Chinese still believe that tiger parts hold magical powers, which is a boon to poachers but deadly for the country's nearly extinct big cats.
Published On Tue Feb 9 2010
By Bill Schiller
BEIJING–In the Chinese zodiac it's a symbol of energy, courage and awesome power.
In real life though, it will need luck – and enormous international effort – if it's to escape extinction.
China ushers in the Year of the Tiger on Sunday, kicking off a week-long celebration marked by festive fireworks and family gatherings.
But conservationists warn that unless China and a dozen other countries act urgently, wild tigers will vanish from the planet by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.
A century ago, more than 100,000 big cats roamed the Earth, but stocks have plummeted: scientists say there are now just 3,200.
China, once home to thousands of wild tigers, has fewer than 50.
"The best population in China is in the northeast, with the Amur or Siberian tiger, where we estimate there are about 20 left," says Xie Yan of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Even as recently as the 1980s there were still "abundant" stocks of tigers in China, Xie said Monday.
But not anymore.
"The South China tiger – in the wild – may already be extinct," said Xie. Indeed, there have been no sightings of the South China sub-species since the 1970s.
The rest of China's tigers, about 10 Bengali and 10 Indo-Chinese, inhabit Tibet and other parts of the country.
India has the largest number of wild tigers with almost 1,400.
The biggest threats in China are habitat loss and illegal hunting.
Motivated by money, poachers continue to supply a ready market in China, where many believe tiger parts, have medicinal properties.
"Chinese people think tigers can help strengthen the body and use it as a tonic," explained Priscilla Jiao of TRAFFIC East Asia, which tracks trade in wildlife.
There are still people who believe tiger bones have a "magic" function, she said. Some believe the bones help rheumatism; others feel they are an aphrodisiac, said Jiao.
Tiger hunting is illegal worldwide and trade in tiger parts is banned in more than 160 countries.
In China, internal trade in tiger skins, bones and parts has been outlawed since 1993. Still, an underground market persists.
Complicating matters are entrepreneurs who've started tiger farms, breeding tigers in captivity believing that the government will one day allow the sale of tiger parts.
The tiger lobby argues that a market based on captive tigers would relieve pressure on wild stocks.
Conservationists, however, disagree. They say the very existence of commercial farms just perpetuates the market for tiger parts.
Worryingly, investment in tiger farms appears to be growing. In 2007, there were just five such farms in all of China, says a report by the International Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Today there are reportedly 14. The farms have bred nearly 6,000 tigers in captivity.
The foundation's report revealed that despite laws, firms were marketing tiger meat, tiger wine – wine made from tiger bones and tiger penis – and even offering sales online.
With the Year of the Tiger approaching, conservationists fear festivities will boost demand.
But the World Wildlife Fund, with support from the World Bank, has decided 2010 will be a make-or-break year for wild tigers.
They're pushing 13 countries in which wild tigers reside to double the numbers of wild tigers by 2022.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and World Bank president Robert Zoellick will host a heads of state tiger summit in Vladivostok in September aimed at galvanizing support for the plan.
Meanwhile, China issued a directive last month promising to better protect tiger habitat and to crack down on the trade in tiger parts.