By 1998, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger, the most endangered of the big cats may have become extinct in the wild in that gigantic country. The fate of the tiger has become one of the world's longest-running conservation stories. For a quarter of a century there has been massive international publicity about its demise. Yet it remains very high on the danger list.
If the future of a charismatic "flagship" species such as the tiger, beautiful and known to all, cannot be assured, what hope is there for the many thousands of lesser plants, birds, insects and mammals also headed for extinction due to humanity's encroachment?
At the beginning of this century there were, very roughly, 100,000 tigers in the wild ranging over great tracts of Asia. The actual figure could have been half or twice that; nobody was counting carefully in those days. Today they are, but tigers are very hard to keep tabs on in the greatly reduced areas of tropical and boreal forest where they still prowl. Rarely seen, they have to be counted by their droppings, scratch marks and calls. The best estimate for the current global population is 5,000 to 7,000.
Eight different subspecies or races of the tiger, Panthera tigris, have been identified. Three of those, the Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers, have vanished altogether since the 1940s mainly as a result of hunting. Yesterday in London the World Wide Fund for Nature published a report on the ``forgotten'' tigers of Indochina. Urging more help from rich to poor countries to aid the cause, the world's leading conservation charity said that in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam one tiger was being killed by humans each week. At that rate the Indochinese subspecies will become extinct in those three countries around the turn of the century.
The plight of the South China tiger, native to that country, is more desperate still. There are thought to be between 30 and 80 left in the wild. Peter Jackson, chairman of a group of the world's leading big cat experts set up by the World Conservation Union, says: ``There is no hope that it will ever recover.'' This is the subspecies thought to be most similar to the ancestral tiger, which evolved in China about a million years ago and spread through Asia.
Revered and feared, the tiger is in jeopardy partly because most of its range is in poor countries that have high population densities and rapidly increasing numbers of people. Its forest habitat has been rapidly depleted and the tiger and peasants are not naturally good neighbours. The big cat finds that livestock makes an easy meal, and some older animals even turn to eating people.
Perhaps we should be surprised that it survives at all. Consider Scotland, whose top predator, the wolf, was hunted to extinction several hundred years ago. Scotland has a far lower population density than tiger states such as India, Vietnam and China, yet any suggestion that the wolf might once more be reintroduced to the Highlands is met with outrage from farmers and estate owners.
More important than habitat destruction and conflicts with poor farmers, though, is the fact that a wide range of tiger parts are highly prized in Chinese medicine. The world over, Chinese communities have become more affluent and demand for products purporting to or actually containing tiger parts - pills, tonic wines, plasters - has been growing.
In the Fifties and Sixties the Chinese government declared tigers to be a pest and thousands were killed by official hunting teams, producing huge quantities of raw material for these medicines. Conservationists believe one reason why the slaughter of tigers has accelerated in several countries is that within the People's Republic stocks of raw material such as tiger bones have run down so much they now have to be imported. The Siberian tiger, largest of the subspecies, now numbers fewer than 200, thanks to an upsurge in hunting in Russia's far east.
Nearly all of the governments of countries with tiger populations have passed laws to protect tigers or outlaw hunting, Burma being a glaring exception. Most have signed up to the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species, which outlaws or controls trade in a wide range of wildlife and wildlife products - but not Cambodia, Laos, Burma and North Korea. However, enforcement of these laws and treaties is often weak. Mr Jackson says that in March this year he found several souvenir shops in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a total of 43 tiger canine teeth, sold as curios, on display within a few hundred yards of each other.
In Indochina, conservationists have seen the market for tiger products grow from small beginnings to a major business in the past 10 years; then being dismantled by government crackdowns, going underground and continuing to flourish.
Organisations such as WWF insist that governments have to do much more to clamp down on the trade within and across their borders. They also want Western countries to ensure that tiger products are not being imported for Chinese communities there. In February this year police forces in London, Manchester and Birmingham raided Chinese pharmacies in Chinatowns, seizing hundreds of wildlife products.
As a result of this "Operation Charm", seven men came to trial in magistrates' courts in the three cities this month. It was the first time there have been prosecutions in Britain for displaying and selling wildlife products banned under the Cites treaty. While magistrates in Birmingham and London meted out fines of between pounds 1,000 and pounds 3,000, in Manchester a stipendiary magistrate gave all four men before her no fine and a conditional discharge - to the horror of conservationists.
But while the WWF wants the authorities to be firm enforcers, it accepts that campaigns against the use of traditional medicines have to be sensitive. People cannot simply be told that their beliefs are ancient superstitions.
Indeed, there's every reason to believe many folk medicines and remedies used by cultures across the world are effective - even those including animal products.
What is needed is a direct appeal to use alternatives because a creature which is revered and admired really is in danger of extinction. Conservationists believe, for instance, that working through religious leaders can be more effective than brash propaganda campaigns.
While the most powerful reasons for preventing extinction are emotional and ethical, there are more hard-headed and rational justifications. As a top predator, tigers need a great deal of forest. If a community commits itself to saving a few dozen tigers, then it also commits to preserving hundreds of square miles of jungle - which can itself be a crucial resource for a wide range of products, from timber to tourism revenues. In the process, the future of the other plants and animals living alongside the big cat is also guaranteed.
Although half of the world's remaining tigers live outside reserves today, it is likely that they will all have to live in areas with some kind of protected status if they are to have any long-term chance of survival. Local people have to be given a stake in the future of these areas and tigers - something which has often been lacking. Thus, for example, tourist hotels on the edge of the reserve could pay a tax for each visitor to the reserve. They should be involved in guarding the wildlife and preventing poaching.
Nepal is one country reckoned to be a tiger success story: numbers there have held steady at around 200 for two decades. In one of the country's three reserves, Chitwan, local people are offered rewards for informing on poachers.
There are sufficient tigers in zoos to mount a captive breeding programme and prevent total extinction, but that gives no grounds for complacency. It is extremely difficult to reintroduce such a large and complex predator back into its own habitat once it has become extinct in the wild. The tiger conservation story may be the longest running one, but it is far from over.Reuse content