November 1, 2009

“˜Year of the Tiger’ Poses Risks For Endangered Animal

Next year is the "ËœYear of the Tiger' according to the Chinese calendar, but conservationists say signs are ominous for the endangered animal.

They worry the Chinese zodiac may actually speed the tigers' demise, with demand for its skin and body parts enticing poachers to hunt the few tigers that remain in the wild.

"The Year of the Tiger will put more pressure on wild tigers," Michael Baltzer, head of the WWF Tiger Initiative, told the AFP news agency.

"The use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine has fallen, but the trend of giving tiger parts as gifts and souvenirs is growing," said Baltzer during a tiger conservation conference in Kathmandu.

He said he expects demand will grow next year.

"There is a certain consumer group who want to use tiger parts to show how wealthy they are, as a status symbol, and this group of people is increasing."

Just 3,200 tigers now survive in the wild, according to experts with the Save the Tiger Fund.  That figure is down from 100,000 a century ago, primarily due to poaching and the loss of habitat in southern Asia.

Tiger hunting is illegal worldwide, and the international trade in tiger parts is prohibited under a treaty binding 167 countries, including China.  Nevertheless, experts say the illicit trade is still thriving.

Despite the formal ban on trading tiger body parts China enacted in 1993, the nation still has 6,000 tigers on 14 farms across the country, said Li Zhang, program director of Conservation International in Beijing.

These farms can produce roughly 1,000 cubs a year.

China has been pushing for an agreement to resume the trade in tiger products. 

Delegates at Kathmandu said Chinese officials had raised the issue during last week's conference, which was organized by the Global Tiger Initiative and drew more than 200 delegates from 20 countries.

Tiger skins, which can sell for high prices in China and elsewhere in Asia, are used for furniture and for decoration. Their body parts are used in traditional medicine and as aphrodisiacs.

The tiger is also considered a symbol of power, courage, energy and good luck in China.

The threat caused by China's Year of the Tiger, which officially begins February 14. is very real, said Huang Lixin, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.

"Owning tiger skins in China is becoming a status symbol, a luxury item," she told the AFP during an interview in Kathmandu.
"Chinese consumers will want tiger bones or tiger wine and liquor, or tiger skins, to celebrate the year."

During the conference, Chinese officials argued that tiger farming could lessen pressure on the wild population, which is down to just 50 animals in China.  The theory is that body parts from captive tigers would meet domestic demand, thereby reducing the market for poachers who hunt tigers in the wild.

But critics say it would send the wrong message, and would give tacit approval for the use of tiger parts.

"The tiger farms in China pose a grave danger to the last remaining wild tigers. Every day there are more tigers on the farms and fewer in the wild," Judy Mills, coordinator of the International Tiger Coalition, told the AFP news agency.

"Their mere existence encourages demand for tiger parts. It is causing poachers and traders to stockpile skins and bones of wild tigers," she said.

"If China ever decides to lift the ban, it will stimulate market demand and the world will lose all the tigers in the wild," said Mahendra Shrestha, program director at the Save the Tiger Fund.

"If you commercialize tigers, it will create bigger demand. That's the end of wild tigers because we simply don't have the resources to protect them," said John Seidensticker of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park.

"China holds the key to tiger conservation. If China cracks down on illegal trade, they will save wild tigers and we know they have the capacity to do that," he told the AFP.


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