Tigers could be driven to extinction if plans by China to lift a ban on trading in them are allowed to go ahead, wildlife campaigners have warned.
The Chinese government is considering whether to reopen the domestic market for tigers and their body parts, according to reports.
Tiger numbers are at a record low, with fewer than 5,000 remaining in the wild. They are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which means that they or their body parts cannot be sold internationally. China also imposed a ban on domestic trade in 1993, in an attempt to stop the poaching of tigers for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products.
But with soaring demand for TCM both at home and abroad, the Chinese government is looking at whether to allow the skeletons of tigers that die in captivity to be used for medicinal purposes.
There are an estimated 3,000 captive-bred tigers in China. So-called "tiger farms" breed the animals and sell them on to zoos and pet shops.
But campaigners are warning that if even this limited market is allowed to resume, illegal poaching will soar as demand rises.
Callum Rankine, head of the species programme at the conservation organisation WWF, said: "Make no bones about it - this could be the end for tigers. Poachers living near the world's last populations of tigers may kill them to supply illegal markets that are likely to develop alongside any new, legal ones."
Tiger bone is a highly prized ingredient in TCM and is said - without much supporting evidence - to be particularly effective for treating rheumatism, headaches and stiffness.
Nearly every other part of the tiger also has a prescribed benefit. The eyeballs are used to treat epilepsy, the tail for various skin diseases, whiskers for toothache and the bile is said to soothe convulsions in children.
Pills made from the penis of the tiger are also believed by millions to make men more virile, with concoctions purporting to contain the genitals selling for thousands of pounds on the black market.
Campaigners said the news that China was considering relaxing the ban had come as a shock. Steven Broad, executive director of the wildlife monitoring group Traffic International, said: "If this goes ahead, it will undo all the excellent work that the Chinese government has done over the past 12 years.
"China has led by example in the past, by imposing harsh penalties on wildlife- trade criminals and through determined enforcement measures. To go back on all this, especially when there are alternatives for use in traditional medicines, just doesn't make sense."
The charities believe that the government is bowing to pressure from tiger farmers and TCM practitioners to lift the ban on the trade in skeletons.
Observers believe that many of the farmers are breeding far more tigers than zoos need because they believe the ban will be lifted and the lucrative trade in their body parts will resume. One tiger park in Guilin, Guangxi province, claims to be capable of raising up to 1,000 tigers.
Wildlife groups are now hoping to provoke an international outcry in an attempt to prevent the lifting of the ban.
The world has lost 90 per cent of its tiger population over the past century. Three sub-species - Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers - have become extinct in the past 70 years, with just five others remaining.Last month, customs officers in Taiwan seized 140kg of bone thought to have come from poached Sumatran tigers, the rarest of the remaining sub-species. There are now just 500 Sumatran tigers left.Reuse content