June 11, 2010

Tigers Facing Extinction, In Need Of Human Help

Tigers, on the verge of extinction for years, still have a chance to be saved, but their continued survival has two huge hurdles to overcome: deforestation and the black market.

Tigers numbered 100,000 or more a century ago and were widespread across Asia, from India to China and through Russia. But today, it is estimated that no more than 3,500 tigers remain in the wild.

"Tigers are on a decline, they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching," Joseph Vattakaven, one of India's top tiger scientists, told the AFP news agency.

Experts from Asia, along with the senior coordinator of Tiger Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in India, gathered at the National Zoo in Washington to discuss potential ways of preserving the species.

Tigers are hunted for a wide variety of reasons, including for their fur, bones, teeth, claws, meat, whiskers and organs used in traditional medicines and potions that supposedly enhance sexual performance. Tigers can be sold for as much as $50,000 on the black market for their parts.

According to Vattakaven, most of the tiger demand comes from China. "We have to stop the demand in China. People are not aware of how many tigers are in danger," he said.

"Everyone must be involved. We need to involve people of local communities" near tiger habitats to put a stop to poaching practices, he added.

The gathering, organized by the Global Tiger Initiative, offered ideas on how to stop the ongoing threat of poaching. One idea was to create specialized patrols well-versed in poaching techniques that could discourage or apprehend poachers.

Somphot Duangchantrasiri, a Thai forestry officer and head of the Khao Nang Ram Wildlife Research Station, told AFP, "Those are small groups with guns. With their presence only, they can frighten poachers."

However, Duangchantrasiri warned "it's dangerous because the others got guns too. There were shootings and people were killed."

The sheer size of tiger habitats also presents a major challenge.

In Russia, "the problem is that we have these vast areas, all those small roads; you have to control all the vehicles, which is virtually impossible," said Vladimir Istomin, the deputy head of a Russian government agency charged with protecting wildlife.

For the Global Tiger Initiative, the number one priority remains putting a halt to poaching along with bringing the ongoing man-made destruction of tiger habitats to an end.

Tigers are now cornered into divided territories and are struggling to find prey and to reproduce.

Some experts feel the solution is to build protected pathways between the different regions the creatures call home so that they may evolve without fearing man, and without man fearing tiger.

Experts say the challenge is just as environmental as it is political, as they remain in a heated battle to convince governments at stake to add tiger conservation to their already overloaded agendas.

Experts also warn that it is easier said than done, especially in Russia, where tigers live in developing areas with ongoing construction.


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