Poachers again threaten tigers' survival

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The flourishing trade in tiger skins has prompted renewed international concern for the survival of the animals, especially in Indonesia, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported yesterday.

Progress made in curtailing the use of tiger bone in Chinese medicine, until recently one of the primary causes of the poaching that is threatening tigers with extinction, is being undermined by the continuing demand for the animals' skin, says WWF.

A recent WWF field report from Indonesia found that at least 66 Sumatran tigers had been killed in the past two years to fuel the markets for curios, skins and traditional Chinese medicines. The Sumatran tiger is the last subspecies of tiger found in Indonesia; two others, the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger, were declared extinct in the 1970s.

Stuart Chapman, head of WWF's wildlife trade programme, said: "The loss of 66 tigers over such a short period of time represents nearly 20 per cent of the wild Sumatran tiger population. We had hoped that declines of this magnitude were confined to the history books, but the war against poaching and the illegal trade rages on."

Progress has been made in eliminating the availability of bone Chinese medicines; the reduction has been put down to tougher legislation, promotion of substitutes and stronger enforcement action.

However, WWF says that active tiger markets continue to flourish in many of the tiger range states, including Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Laos - in some cases quite blatantly. A pet shop in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, had two tiger cubs openly on sale in 1998.

The organisation says "disturbingly large" markets for tiger skins persist and other large cats, such as leopards, are being poached as substitutes for tiger bone. For the Indonesian market, tiger skin is sought as an ornament or trophy. Other parts of the animal such as teeth, claws and whiskers (including small pieces of lower quality skin) are used as an amulet, said to provide magical powers for the owner.

WWF is demanding action from Indonesia and the other range states to clamp down on the tiger trade. It will be a principal focus of attention at the CITES (convention on international trade in endangered species) conference in Nairobi, Kenya, next month.

"The tiger is running out of time and governments are running our of excuses," Mr Chapman said. "This barbaric trade must end. While advances were made in the 1990s towards reducing the use of tiger bone in traditional Asian medicine, we must not be complacent with the successes so far."

There are now thought to be fewer than 7,500 tigers left in the world, the largest number - 2,500 to 3,500 - in India. Several populations have already become extinct.