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China's Year of the (endangered) Tiger

February 10, 2010

Bill Schiller
The Toronto Star
February 9, 2010

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.
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