Tyger Tyger, dying out

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The Independent Online
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100,000 prowled the world. Now, less than a hundred years down the line, the roar of the tiger has dwindled to a whimper, with only 5,000 surviving in the wild.

But a campaign launched this week by the Federation of Zoos, to raise pounds 100,000 for three conservation projects, has run into controversy over the best means of conserving tigers and ensuring their future.

The campaign, Tigers Week, is aimed at supporting Siberian, Indian and Sumatran tigers. They are all at perilous risk from poachers, and the ever-present threat to their natural habitats.

However, the project is also promoting preservation work in zoos - including captive breeding - which has divided conservationists. Peter Lawton, chief executive of Global Tiger Patrol, an Indian based charity, which will receive money raised from the week, voiced his concern yesterday.

"While I am very grateful for the help they are giving us, we are totally against captive breeding. It gives a totally false picture of security, when the truth is that this is the 11th hour and if we don't put all our resources into saving tigers in the wild, we may lose them completely by the end of the century," he said.

The most disturbing cause for the decline of tigers is the rise in trade for their body parts for Oriental medicine. There is a hugely lucrative black market, in which dealers can expect$15,000 for a skin and around $20,000 per 10kg of bones.

Among the recent casualties found by Mr Lawton in India was a tiger which had had its face blown off by a home-made bomb in a piece of meat, and it took 28 hours to die.

In India, which has the world's largest population of tigers in the wild, numbers have dropped to between 2,500 and 3,500 in the wild, and poachers have caught an estimated 1,000 for skin, meat and bones in the north of the country during the last three years.

The Siberian tiger is the most critically endangered, with only between 150 and 250 surviving in the wild, making it one of the rarest animals in the world. The wildlife charity Tusk Force hopes to set up an extra anti-poaching patrol, which would cost around pounds 30,000.

There are also fewer than 500 Sumatran tigers currently in the wild. The Sumatran Tiger Field Project hopes to improve links with ex-situ breeding programmes in zoos, and improve the monitoring of wild populations.

The Federation of Zoos defended its position on captive breeding yesterday, saying: "We state the best place to save animals is in the wild, but sometimes extra help is needed. In the case of tigers, we're providing a safety net."