ALL PICS: NANDA RANA
A flurry of conservation meetings has taken place, Internet groups have sprung up, and the media this past week has been full of tigers. There is an all-around glow of good intentions--and it is welcome, because the life of wild tigers hangs by a slender thread. Sadly, there are still many Chinese who would rather eat bits and pieces of a tiger than save the great cat in the wild. There are still many people the world over, who would like a tiger skin. And there are still many Indians who do not see why it is necessary to save them.
India, home to around 1,400 which is roughly one-third of the world's last wild tigers, recorded 66 tiger deaths in 2009 - of which 23 had been killed by poachers.
In the Chinese system, animals come with elements; this is the year of the metal Tiger. But the real tiger of flesh and blood and tooth and claw is a fragile one and very, very mortal. Estimates put the number of tigers in the wild across 13 Asian countries at around 3200--down from 5000-7000 in the last Year of the Tiger (1998).
Many are in small populations in remnant patches of habitat, constantly under threat and short of prey. Poachers kill not only the tigers for their bones, organs and skin, but also their prey--deer and wild boar--for meat.
Small populations are also genetically vulnerable. If a small population loses its male tigers for instance, it is doomed.In one Indian tiger reserve the opposite happened--the last male tiger ran out of mates.
There are only a few areas left which, if protected and ideally also restored, could support more tigers. These include Thailand's 17,870 sq km (11,103 sq miles) western forest complex, overlapping with Burma's Tenasserim region. Another is northern India's Terai Arc landscape, shared with Nepal. Historically the Tarai region has been the most productive breeding ground for tigers.
But that is history. Both the Indo-Nepal and Thai-Burma landscapes have habitat breaks which need to be restored to link sub-populations.
The most basic requirement remains that of protecting the tigers. On the demand side, China's role is critical. Even though some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have dropped tiger parts from their menu of options, and powerful role models like martial arts film star Jackie Chan are crusading for change, there is still demand despite studies showing tiger bones and organs are no different to those of dogs, pigs and goats.
Wild tigers regularly turn up in Thailand sawn in half and stuffed into the boots of cars carrying them up the Malay peninsula to China. Once chopped up and passed up the line, the sum of a tiger's parts can fetch up to US$ 70,000.
China, backed by owners of tiger farms with over 6,000 of the big cats in stock alive or dead in deep freezes, has been trying to get the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to agree to opening up the market in China for the farmed tigers. A proposition to this effect is reportedly ready for the next Conference of the Parties of CITES in Doha in April.
The farms claim that opening up the trade will flood the market with tiger parts, lowering prices and removing the incentive for poaching wild tigers. But it costs anywhere between US$1000 and US$ 4000 a year to rear a tiger in captivity, and less than US$25 to have one killed in the wild, with a bullet or a simple snare made of cable or wire. Everywhere in the world, and in every commodity and product, traders and smugglers exploit the smallest price differentials.
Consumers will also prefer wild tigers to farmed cats, creating a black market that beefs up the profit from taking a tiger from the wild. Those who advocate this Faustian solution, also clearly fail to notice that last year's recession destroyed the fond myth that the free market is its own best regulator. Supplying a product spurs demand, it does not limit or suppress it.
Ministers and officials from 13 Asian tiger range countries ended a meeting last month in Hua Hin, Thailand, with a pledge to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. The meeting included experts from organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank.
Studies in India and Thailand, do suggest it is possible to double the population of tigers in more viable landscapes. The challenge is to turn this theoretical possibility into reality. In some areas, broken habitat links will have to be restored and local people resettled. This can succeed only with proper public consultation and attractive resettlement deals. Locals must not be abruptly severed from their natural resource base. Local support is essential if the tiger is to be saved.
But the declaration in reality carried little official weight.
The WWF and the World Bank which thanks to its president Robert Zoellick is a recent convert to tiger conservation, say it can be built upon at a 'tiger summit' in Vladivostok in September, which will be chaired by Zoellick and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. But not everything went smoothly at Hua Hin.
From the 13 tiger range countries there were only four full ministers present; others were deputy ministers or senior officials. A World Bank statement saying China's tiger farms should be shut down reportedly irritated some Chinese delegates.
In a video message at Hua Hin, Zoellick pledged the World Bank's support. But India was cold to the World Bank, sending a junior official.
The World Bank saving tigers is a hard sell in India, where its track record shows wildlife habitat has always been ''acceptable collateral damage'' in the words of Mumbai-based conservationist Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine. At one discussion in Hua Hin a delegate asked the World Bank whether, and why, loans still came with conditions. ''The World Bank had no answer'' said a source who was at the discussion.
But the World Bank has indeed raised the tiger a notch on the international agenda, and Hua Hin did produce some commitments from Thailand to step up protection.
Separately last month, India said it would release 10 billion rupees (over US$ 200 million) to relocate communities from tiger habitats. It has long been obvious that human encroachment in various forms on habitat has contributed to the tiger's decline, and human communities and tigers do not happily co-exist.
Eventually, whatever the number of meetings and Facebook groups, it is up to tiger range countries to save their own tigers. And better enforcement is the most basic and vital condition for saving tigers, both in China and in tiger habitats.
In recent years tigers have completely disappeared from at least two tiger reserves in India, and may be on the way out in about half a dozen more. The loss of the tigers was a wake-up call, but the alarm has been put on snooze.
Tigers attract vast numbers of international tourists, and create a powerful incentive to protect their habitats, both to protect biodiversity and water security. In India some 300 streams and rivers, are fed by tiger habitat catchment forests. Yet going by the half-hearted and sporadic protection and enforcement measures on the ground, the tiger is grossly undervalued.
Bangalore-based K. Ullas Karanth, one of the world's foremost tiger experts, in a recent interview to the Times of India deplored the ''mission drift'' in India's forest department, which had moved from its ''core task of protection towards eco-development, needless habitat modifications and such other distractions.''
For thousands of years across Asia, the resonating call of the tiger in trackless tropical jungles has inspired fear and fascination, art and literature, folklore and legend. But the vast jungles are now fragments, many of them oddly silent.
Whether the tiger's call in the wild will still be heard 12 years from now, or if today's children will grow up to see the great cats only in cages, can be decided only by local protection and enforcement in its last few viable habitats.
A version of this article appeared in print on 19, February 2010, issue #490.
Nirmal Ghosh is a conservationist and senior foreign correspondent for The Straits Times. He is also a Trustee of conservation NGO The Corbett Foundation.