The dragon devours the tiger: Environmental Investigation Agency report includes snow leopard

<By Indrajit Basu
UPI Correspondent
Published: February 01, 2010 Kolkata, India — The year 2010 may be an auspicious year in the almanac of the Chinese. But as China enters the “Year of the Tiger” on Feb. 14, tiger conservationists have renewed their fears on the future of this fast-dwindling wild animal. No animal holds more fascination for the Chinese than the tiger, which is identified with progress, luck and charm, while its body parts are believed to hold high medicinal properties. Consequently, even as the demand for its body parts is already high, it is slated to go up dramatically in the Year of the Tiger. Conservationists fear that the burgeoning demand in the Middle Kingdom will not only increase illegal poaching in Asia, particularly in India, but it also threatens to push tigers to the brink of extinction. “The findings of our most recent investigation in China, concluded around the end of last year, revealed that illegal trade in Asian big cats in China and the availability of tiger skin, bone and teeth, leopard skin and bone, and snow leopard skin is going on unabated despite many efforts to curb that since 2004,” said Debbie Banks, head of the Tiger Campaign of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “During these investigations we had encountered traders in China selling tiger parts, and those involved in the illegal trade said that they were anticipating an increase in profits in 2010. They said everyone will want a tiger skin in the Year of the Tiger.” Banks added that all countries in the region – including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal and Myanmar – that have wild tigers are targeted by poachers having connections with Chinese traders. But since India has the largest number of wild tigers, it is at the center of poaching. “There is a well-established network operating in the trans-Himalayan region,” she said. Chinese traders, allege investigators, are buying tiger parts from poachers in the region at exorbitant prices, and have particularly established extensive contacts and well-organized smuggling routes along the porous India-Nepal- Myanmar border. According to Peter Pueschel, the Germany-based wildlife trade program manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Asian tigers are not the only ones under threat. “Chinese demand is also increasing the poaching of tigers in the eastern Russian region which shares its borders with China,” he said. Wild tigers face unprecedented threats today, including reduction of habitat, depletion of prey and continued poaching. Recent reports have found that areas occupied by tigers have shrunk by as much as 41 percent in the last 10 years. Much of this is due to the doubling of the human population since 1965 in Asia’s 14 tiger-range countries. The biggest reason for the alarming reduction of the tiger population, however, is the explosive demand for tiger parts from the Chinese. Sixty years ago over 100,000 tigers roamed the wild; now the global population has dwindled to less than 3,200. India, with about 1,400, has the largest share of wild tigers, but this population is also fast depleting. India’s national tiger census figures released last year recorded a 60-percent drop since 1997, when there were 3,508 tigers. The New Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India recorded 85 cases of tiger mortality in 2009. Of these at least 32 tigers were killed by poachers; 12 were found in the field and parts of 20 others were seized. In the first few weeks of this year six tigers have been found dead already. “Wild tigers must also die from natural circumstances, but the poaching and seizure figures account for 38 percent of the tiger mortality in India for 2009, which is simply unsustainable for a species which is already in dire straits,” said Belinda Wright, the founder-director of WPSI. WPSI started tracking the mortality rate of Indian tigers in 2008, but the poaching and seizure figures for years 2008, 2007 and 2006 were 29, 27 and 37 respectively. “There is a certain demand for tiger bone medicines in some mainly Asian countries but the rampant demand comes from China, which is the only country that processes tiger bones,” said Wright. This is not to say there is no awareness of the threat to tigers in China. In fact, following a total depletion of its wild tigers, China banned trade in wild tiger parts and started seizing and arresting “tiger criminals” from 1993. However, conservationists say that tiger parts are so central to Chinese culture that enforcement officials are often willing to turn a blind eye to trade in tiger parts and products. “Although China has laws prohibiting the import and export of Asian big cat parts and there is a domestic trade ban as well, there isn’t the commitment, investment and also enforcement to stop the trade. We find there is big gap in China’s enforcement efforts. Our concern is that the basic elements of investigation and enforcement in China are not happening. They may react to information but there is no proactive effort to control trading of tiger parts,” said Grace Gabriel, the Beijing-based Asia Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. That may be due to the typical attitudes of Chinese toward the consumption and conservation of tigers. According to a study released in July 2008 by a group of researchers from Save the Tiger Fund and other groups, most Chinese said they continued consuming tiger parts despite the local ban. “We surveyed 1,880 residents from a total of six Chinese cities to understand urban Chinese tiger consumption behavior, knowledge of trade issues and attitudes towards tiger conservation. We found that 43 percent of respondents had consumed some product alleged to contain tiger parts. Within this user group, 71 percent said that they preferred wild products over farmed ones,” the study said. The other reason why enforcement is lacking in China is the existence of large tiger farms that currently rear close to 7,000 tigers in captivity. “These farms are owned by very influential people who would like to see the trade ban lifted and tiger trade legalized, since those people have invested large sums of money in the farms. They are almost waiting for the wild tiger to be extinct so that they can make a killing on their stock pile. They are also lobbying the Chinese government to change the law,” said Banks. Conservationists say driving wild tigers to extinction actually serves the tiger farmers’ economic interests because, while it takes between US$7000 and $10,000 to raise a farmed tiger to the size where it is worthwhile to kill it, killing and smuggling in a wild tiger costs no more than $3,000. The Chinese government too is sending mixed signals. “China is not backing down from the tiger farming issue, and does not intend to follow the wishes of the international community on the total banning of tiger farms and tiger parts trade. By allowing breeding and the stockpiling of tiger parts, they are sending a clear message – to the world, to the tiger farm industry, to consumers in China, and to enforcement authorities – that tiger bone trade will one day be legalized,” said Wright. Worldwide bans on tiger trade have helped Russia‘s tiger population recover and other wild tiger populations to persist. Similarly, stopping the tiger trade and the farming of tigers in China can also save wild tigers, say conservationists. “We have been urging the Chinese government not to legalize trade in farmed tiger products because that can only expand opportunities to sell parts and products from wild tigers,” said Grace Gabriel. “As a Chinese I think it is important that we use the Year of the Tiger as an opportunity to educate other Chinese that we do not want the tiger to be the dragon, the only animal in the Chinese zodiac that does not exist anymore,” she added.

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