Wildlife at risk: Tiger, tiger...

A big cat will fetch £40,000 on the black market. No wonder the tiger's light is almost extinguished

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In the tiger house at London Zoo, specialist keeper Ray Charter is detailing the zoo's exhaustive and expensive efforts to impregnate Raika, its precious Sumatran tiger. Raika, seven, and her partner Lumpur, five, are both awesomely beautiful animals. They pace behind the bars as Mr Charter talks of foreign experts being flown in to attempt artificial insemination and worries that Raika, who has not yet produced young, never will.

Lumpur, weighing 250kg but as graceful as a dancer, occasionally roars, and jumps up against the metal bars separating him from his keeper, as Mr Charter reveals that Raika will be examined again on Wednesday in an attempt to find out why she has put on weight. The hope, of course, is that she is pregnant.

"She could be but I don't think so," he says. "Raika isn't coming on heat and Lumpur has no urge unless he gets the signal. We would know if they were mating because it would happen every 20 minutes over a five-day period."

Raika and Lumpur are part of the zoo's contribution to the worldwide effort to save the tiger from extinction. All this palaver with Raika would be unnecessary if tigers were safe in the wild. But they aren't. In fact, the survival of the tiger as a species has never looked more precarious, with warnings last week from environmentalists in India - home to 60 per cent of all tigers - that the world's biggest cat may soon disappear from the subcontinent altogether.

For the first time, a clutch of tiger reserves is reported to be practically empty of tigers; others are said to be fast approaching that point. Wildlife lovers should feast their eyes on Raika and Lumpur, for pretty soon the only place you will be able to see tigers is in a zoo.

"It is five minutes to midnight for the tiger," Callum Rankine, the World Wildlife Fund's head of species confirmed last week. "This is an issue affecting not just India, but tigers worldwide. Poaching has always taken place, but finding that entire reserves are devoid of tigers is something different. The Indian government needs to wake up and see that it has a serious problem and make sure it does something about it."

Few dispute that the situation in India and other tiger regions, from Sumatra to Siberia, is dire. In the past 100 years, tiger territories have shrunk as human populations have swollen, natural habitats have been lost and tigers have been hunted for their bones, skin and other body parts.

Tigers disappeared from Bali in the 1940s, from Afghanistan in the 1970s and from Java in the 1980s. Their numbers have crashed from 100,000 in 1900 to between 5,000 and 7,000. Some environmental groups even claim that there might be as few as 3,000 tigers left.

India has always been crucial in the battle to save the tiger. And Project Tiger, set up in 1973, was once held up as a model to the world. But the shine has now gone from the scheme amid distrust about the figures released to back its claims that it was winning the battle with poachers.

Around 6,000 guards protect India's 27 tiger reserves, yet this year has seen a rash of claims that reserves have been depleted by poachers. A tiger fetches £40,000 on the black market. The animal's eyes, bones and tails are prized by practitioners of Chinese medicine, and tiger skins make rather fabulous and expensive, if unethical, rugs.

Project Tiger's figures seem to come from a different world from those provided by conservation groups. Between 1994 and 2003 the Wildlife Protection Society of India documented the poaching and seizure of 684 tigers in India. However, the official record with the Project Tiger Directorate of the Ministry of Environment and Forests shows that in 2003 only eight tigers and 15 leopards were poached.

"We have no idea of numbers," says Peter Jackson, former chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group. "Inaccurate figures have been tolerated by Project Tiger and the Indian government for many years and people don't trust the official figures. The situation is gloomy and we are getting to the stage where we will need a miracle if the tiger is to survive."

The first alarm bell sounded early this year when it was claimed that the Sariska National Park, in Rajasthan, had lost every one of its 20 tigers. After months of denial, officials admitted the tigers had gone. Police arrested the notorious poacher Sansar Chand in connection with the tigers' killing. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2004 but disappeared while on bail. He was re-arrested in July after a manhunt. Since Sariska, environmentalists have claimed poachers have emptied Namdapha of all but one or two tigers.

That Project Tiger was defeating the poachers has been a joke for some time. According to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), there's a roaring illegal trade in Indian tigers in China and Tibet. Debbie Banks, head of EIA's Tiger Team, said: "The international community has seen the trade in tiger skins spiral out of control. If this continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger."

A court case that opened last month in India, concerning the killing of 22 Bengal tigers in Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, pointed to the role of incompetent and corrupt government officials in that thriving illegal market. A group of local tribal men admitted they had killed the tigers, one of the poachers revealing it was an easy crime to execute, thanks to his "good contacts" with park staff.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assumed responsibility for a special Tiger Task Force. The government insists a multi-agency Wildlife Crime Bureau is on its way. The Wildlife Trust of India is taking the government to the Supreme Court over the tiger crisis.

Back at London Zoo, Mr Charter is furious that the animal he loves faces the real possibility of extinction. He doesn't blame poor communities around tiger parks for killing tigers - he feels they should be paid to be part of tiger conservation work. What angers him is the market for tiger products. "It will be criminal if tigers become extinct just to provide rugs and medicine," he says.

Andy Fisher, head of the Metropolitan police's wildlife crime unit, sympathises with that position. He reveals that only last month a seizure of suspected tiger products was made in central London. "What is happening with the tigers in India is part of a worldwide trade," he says. "As long as people in places like London are willing to pay for products made from endangered species, then people in places like India will continue to kill these animals."

Life cycle of a tiger

BIRTH

Tiger cubs are born - after a gestation period of around 103 days - into a variety of habitats from tropical rainforests to mountain ranges. They are always born blind and they weigh in at about 2lb. They are already striped. There are up to five cubs in a litter, although the average size tends to be two or three cubs, and one usually dies at birth

CUBHOOD

The male tiger does not stay with the female after mating and does not participate in raising the cubs. Although cubs are weaned at a few months, they depend on their mother for food and protection for up to three years. The female is fiercely protective of her young as new males entering her territory may kill the cubs

MATURITY

Cubs learn to kill at 16 months, but do not hunt alone until about 18-30 months old. They become fully independent between the age of three and four, when they start to mate. Brief acts of copulation occur continually over a five-day period. An adult tiger - the world's largest cat species - can weigh more than 550lb and measure more than 10ft long

DEATH

The lifespan of the tiger is estimated to be from 12 to 15 years in the wild. Those in zoos can reach an age of about 20. The death of a tiger - particularly a male - affects the local population as it can spark a battle between rival tigers trying to take over the vacant territory

25,000 products from endangered species have been seized by London's Metropolitan police since 1995

60% of the world's remaining tigers live in the Indian subcontinent

£10,000 is what a tiger skin can fetch on the black market, making illegal trade a highly lucrative business

£2.8bn is the estimated worth each year of the international trade in endangered species, according to Interpol

25% of India's tiger reserves are thought to be practically empty of tigers

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