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Could the Year of the Tiger Be Their Last?

Because their body parts are so widely used in traditional chinese medicine, tigers are at the head of the pack of endangered species

By Bill Marsh

A century ago, about 100,000 tigers roamed the world's forests. Today—in the Chinese Year of the Tiger—there are barely 3,000. The greatest declines in the wild tiger population have been in China and its neighbor India, where some famous tiger reserves now have no tigers at all.

China may have as few as 20 wild tigers left, and India has about 1,400—down from more than 3,600 in 2002. (There are an estimated 5,000 captive tigers in China and another 8,000 worldwide—kept as exhibits, entertainment, pets, and livestock.)

Several factors have contributed to the dramatic decrease in the world's wild tiger population: the demand in some Asian countries for tiger body parts believed to have medicinal powers; poachers who raid wildlife sanctuaries; and shrinking habitats due to land development and urbanization. In many places, the tiger's range has been reduced to small patches, isolating the animals in groups of dozens of tigers or fewer.

And tigers aren't the only species likely to have a bad year in 2010. In fact, thousands of animals are endangered, including at least a quarter of the world's mammal species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In March, a United Nations conference on endangered species focused on tigers as well as bluefin tuna, which is being overfished due to its popularity as sushi, and elephants, which are killed for their ivory tusks.

$1,000 Paws

"All of the demand for tiger parts is coming from China," says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Unless the Chinese change their attitude, the tiger has no future on this earth."

Despite the Chinese government's ban on the trade since 1993, there is a thriving market for tiger bones, traditionally believed to possess healing qualities, and tiger skins, which have become prestigious trophies. With pelts selling for $20,000 and a single paw worth as much as $1,000, the value of a dead tiger has never been higher, say those who investigate the trade.

But China's anti-trafficking enforcement efforts are haphazard, say conservationists. Although the government bans the use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine, it overlooks the sale of alcohol-based tonics steeped in tiger bone.

This gray area is being exploited by China's tiger farms, which raise thousands of animals with assembly-line efficiency. At Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in Guilin, China, about 1,500 tigers roam treeless, fenced-in areas or pace in cramped cages. Visitors pay $12 to see the animals perform stunts like jumping through rings of fire. If the crowds are large enough, workers will place a hungry tiger and a cow together in an enclosure—with predictably gruesome results.

Opened in 1993 with financing from the government, Xiongsen is the largest of China's 20 tiger farms. Its gift shop sells wine containing what the label says are "rare animal bones" for $132 per tiger-shaped bottle.

China has considered lifting its ban on the tiger trade to allow some of its tiger farms to provide parts to meet domestic demand for medicinal tiger products. Some say this would take the pressure off wild tigers. But most conservationists say that producing more tiger products would increase the demand, and higher demand hurts wild tigers, because consumers believe tigers from the wild have greater potency than farm-raised ones.

James Compton of TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the global wildlife trade, says the most important step would be for China and other nations to treat the trade in tiger parts the same as they would illegal drug trafficking.

Tiger Summit

The Year of the Tiger, which began in February, will at least be a year of talking about tigers. A "tiger summit" planned for September will be hosted in Russia by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the president of the World Bank. Putin is especially interested in the Siberian tiger—the largest of all the big cats, with males weighing up to 800 pounds and growing to lengths of 12 feet.

Compton recalls the last Year of the Tiger, in 1998. There was similar talk then of using the occasion to raise international awareness of the tiger's plight. He vividly remembers the poster created for the occasion. It read: "Save the Last 5,000 Tigers."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)