Environment: Tough years for tiger as Chinese medicine takes its toll

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Next week marks the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Tiger. But Ian Burrell heard yesterday from the Worldwide Fund for Nature that by the time of the next year of the tiger, in 2010, the striped carnivore may be extinct in South China and India.

The South China tiger is so rare that the WWF does not even have a photograph of it. There are now only an estimated 25 such tigers alive in the wild, compared to about 4,000 in the 1950s.

Dr Robin Pellew, the director of WWF-UK, said that the year of the tiger would be pivotal in its fight for the animal's survival. "The interest sparked by this calendar event could serve as a catalyst for action and help reverse the fortunes of this critically endangered species," he said.

The threat to the tiger, which is believed to be the oldest tiger in the world, has been greatly increased by the trade in its body parts for use in Chinese traditional medicine, which is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

Although this trade is officially banned in all countries where the tiger exists, there is a significant black market. Tiger bones are used in medicines designed to treat rheumatism while the flesh is treasured for its supposed qualities in fighting malaria and the eyeballs are taken to cure cataracts.

Meanwhile, their habitat shrinks daily as land is cleared for agriculture, logging and housing.

The WWF today issues a report which reveals that the world's tiger population has declined by 95 per cent in the last century. There are now between 5,000 and 7,500 tigers left in the wild, most of them in national parks and protected areas, outside of which they stand little chance of survival.

Three of the eight sub-species of tiger which existed at the turn of the century have already been lost. The Bali tiger became extinct in the 1940s, the Caspian was lost in the 1970s and the Javan tiger disappeared in the 1980s.

Next to the South China tiger, the sub-species most at risk is the Bengal tiger, which is found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.

Valmik Thapar, a big cat specialist based in India, where there are 3,000 Bengal tigers, said their future grew more perilous by the day. "If we fail to win some of today's battles, tigers will be virtually extinct by the time of the next year of the tiger," he said.

There is at least some good news from Nepal, where no Bengals have been poached for four years. But the 200-strong population remains under threat from the gradual loss of its habitat.

The Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian, is down to 415 animals in the wild. The biggest and heaviest of the remaining sub-species, they are found in the far east of Russia and in the years since the break-up of the Soviet Union their numbers have plummeted dramatically. But Pavel Fomenko, of the WWF's Amur Tiger Conservation Programme, is still optimistic for the animal's future. He said: "In the last four years, we have made tremendous progress in the battle against tiger poachers."

In Indonesia, environmentalists are equally upbeat about the survival chances of the Sumatran tiger, of which between 400 and 500 remain.

Indo-Chinese tigers can still be found in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

There is great concern over the future of the Thai population which is said to be the most secretive large mammal community in the world, and numbers somewhere between 250 and 600.

The WWF in the United Kingdom is spending pounds 500,000 on direct tiger actions projects in the next three years.