"Extinction looms for wild tigers in Asia." By Nirmal Ghosh. The Straits Times, 06 Jul 2005.
LAST Saturday, police at an intersection in Udon Thani in north-eastern Thailand stopped two pickup trucks bound for China via Laos. Packed in huge iceboxes, they found the carcasses of three full-grown wild Malayan tigers.
The men in the trucks said they had been paid 15,000 baht (S$620) to ferry the dead tigers - and 150 dead pangolins crammed into fruit crates - into China.
The seizure was depressingly routine, because hundreds of pangolins are discovered on the Malaysia-China land route every month.
But it was spectacular because of the tigers. This pointed to the growing challenges faced by conservationists trying to save a species at the heart of Asia's identity.
There are now only 5,000 to 7,500 tigers believed to be found in their natural wild habitat.
Asia has already permanently lost three of its original eight species. The rest are sliding rapidly towards extinction.
The Caspian, Balinese and Javanese tigers are already extinct. The South China tiger is likely to be the next to disappear, with fewer than two dozen believed left in the wild.
In India's Rajasthan state, poachers wiped out almost three- quarters of the entire population of 30-plus wild tigers in two reserves during last year's monsoon season.
The dismembered parts were believed to have been sold to buyers in China, where a belief in the medicinal or aphrodisiacal qualities of tiger bones and organs have kept poachers in business.
The debacle showed that small, scattered populations of tigers can be eliminated in just a matter of weeks if political support for the cause is lacking.
Popular support is often not forthcoming. Poor local villagers generally see wildlife conservation as an elitist luxury, and resent the setting up of tiger reserves as an encroachment on their rights to the surrounding forests.
To them, if a poacher kills a tiger, too bad for the beast.
When the Rajasthan case sparked an international uproar, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a wildlife crime unit - something activists had been urging for a decade. He also set up a task force to look into devising long- term strategies to save the tiger and its habitat.
India has between 2,500 and 3,000 wild tigers - the biggest population of any single Asian country. But the creatures are scattered in isolated groups, making them vulnerable to poachers. Protection in habitats is often on paper, with low priority given to wildlife and forest protection departments.
By contrast, there is big money in hunting them down. A dead tiger can fetch up to US$40,000 (S$68,000) in China, where the market is growing because of rising affluence. Demand is fuelled by the belief that consuming ground tiger bones can relieve rheumatic pains, and tiger penises can enhance sexual vigour. Tiger fur can be seen on coats in the markets of Tibet.
Research in China itself has found the properties of tiger bones and organs are not very different from those of dogs, pigs and goats. But the myths refuse to die. Conservationists put the value of the illegal wildlife market at around US$160 billion annually, just behind the trade in contraband arms and narcotics. In terms of individual animals, the tiger is among the most valuable for a smuggler.
To make matters worse, the conservation community is torn on how best to save Asia's remaining tigers.
An old idea has been revived - breeding tigers in farms and harvesting them to flood the market, thereby driving prices down and reducing the incentive to poach. But critics say farming of seriously endangered species can worsen the problem. They like to point out that there are plenty of crocodile farms in Thailand, but hardly any left in the wild.
Professor G. Agoramoorthy, a primatologist teaching at Taipei University, says: 'I have seen wildlife farms from South America to South-east Asia, all somehow directly or indirectly putting pressure on the existing wild populations of endangered species.'
Today, trade in tiger products is banned worldwide under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Ms Debbie Banks of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency warns that if the sale of farmed tiger products is legalised, a surge in demand may lead to the development of a black market for the wild product, and hasten the end of the last remaining tigers.
Conservationists say there are just too few tigers left to try risky strategies. 'Cites has explored and rejected tiger farming as a conservation tool on a number of occasions,' Ms Banks says.
Mr Adam Roberts, of the US-based Born Free Foundation, points out that China started bear farming in the 1980s with the argument that it would reduce pressure on wild populations. 'The exact opposite is true. Bear farms still deplete wild populations to stock their farms. Bears continue to be poached in the wild.'
Simple arithmetic explains why the farm approach fails: It costs around US$2,000 a year to raise a tiger to adulthood in captivity in passable conditions, and just US$5 to have a wild tiger killed by a local village hunter.
Observers say conservationists and the tourist industry are partly to blame for the sad state of Asia's tigers, because they have failed to make an adequate case that wild tigers can sustain a huge tourism industry, providing thousands of jobs to locals.
Some also blame economists who have not quantified the ecological services rendered to people by habitats protected in the name of the tiger: clean water, clean air, flood control, rainwater catchment, medicinal plants and biodiversity.
Thousands of tourists flock to countries like India each year just to see tigers. At Thailand's Sri Racha tiger farm, thousands of tourists queue up to see bored tigers in cages; there are more tigers in Sri Racha than in all of the country's forests. Such is the drawing power of the giant cat.
Conservationists say that unless governments crack down seriously on the illegal trade in wildlife, and sharpen protection of tiger habitats, the big cats will be hunted to extinction in the wild precisely because of their charisma.
Viewing a tiger in a farm or zoo is just not the same as seeing one in its natural habitat. Indian wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth once said that 'when you see a tiger, it is always like a dream'.
Many experts fear that the tiger may become extinct in the wild in 50 years. And then it really will be merely a dream.
DWINDLING NUMBER OF WILD TIGERS
IT IS estimated that there are only 5,000 to 7,500 tigers alive today in their natural wild habitat.
The Caspian, Balinese and Javanese tigers are extinct. The South China tiger is likely to be the next to disappear; it is reckoned that fewer than two dozen survive in the wild.
The distribution of tigers:
Amur or Siberian tiger (Russia, with some possibly in China and North Korea): 360-406
Indochina tiger (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia): 1,227-1,785
Sumatran tiger (Sumatra, Indonesia): around 400
South China tiger: 20-30
Bengal tigers (India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal): 3,000-4,500
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
See also news about the Bengal tiger: “Tiger, tiger, losing fight.” By Vibha Sharma. The Tribune, 29 May 2005. Another 15 years, and the big cat could be extinct.