Ministers and officials from 13 Asian countries ended a meeting last week in Hua Hin with a pledge to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. The meeting, hosted by Thailand, included experts from non-government organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The declaration in reality carries little official weight. But it can be built upon at a 'tiger summit' in Vladivostok in September, which will be chaired by Russian Premier Vladimir Putin and World Bank president Robert Zoellick.
For thousands of years across Asia, the deep call of the tiger in trackless tropical jungles has inspired fear and fascination, art and literature, folklore and legend. But the vast jungles are now fragments, many of them oddly silent. The call of the tiger is no longer heard in the apparently pristine forests of Khao Yai National Park – a World Heritage Site a couple of hours from Bangkok.
India has roughly one-third of the remaining wild tigers. But in recent years tigers have completely disappeared from two tiger reserves in India. Last Friday, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh described the situation as 'alarming'. Estimates put the number of tigers in the wild across the 13 countries at around 3,200 - down from 5,000 to 7,000 in the last Year of the Tiger, which fell in 1998. Many are in small populations in remnant patches of habitat, constantly under threat and short of prey. Poachers kill not only the tigers for the bones, organs and skin, but also their source of food – deer and wild boar – for meat. Small populations are also genetically vulnerable. If a population loses its male tigers, it is doomed.
There are only a few areas left which, if protected and ideally also restored, could support more tigers. These include Thailand's 17,870 sq km western forest complex, overlapping with Myanmar's Tenasserim region. Another is northern India's Terai Arc landscape, which is shared with Nepal. But both the landscapes have habitat breaks which need to be restored to link sub-populations. Studies in India and Thailand, suggest it is possible to double the population of tigers in more viable landscapes. The challenge is to turn this theoretical possibility into reality. In some areas, broken habitat links will have to be restored and local people resettled. This can succeed only with proper public consultation and attractive resettlement deals. Locals must not be abruptly severed from their natural resource base. Local support is essential if the tiger is to be saved. And the most basic requirement remains to protect the tigers.
On the demand side, China's role is critical. Most tigers are killed for the Chinese market, and even though some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have dropped tiger parts from their menu of options, and powerful role models like martial arts film star Jackie Chan are crusading for change, there is still massive demand despite studies showing tiger bones and organs are no different to those of dogs, pigs and goats.
Many fear that the Year of the Tiger will spur demand and see more wild tigers killed. China, backed by owners of tiger farms with over 6,000 of the big cats in stock alive or dead in deep freezes, has been trying to get the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to agree to opening up the market in China for the farmed tigers. A proposition to this effect is reportedly ready for the next Conference of the Parties of CITES in Doha in April.
The farms claim that opening up the trade will flood the market with tiger parts, lowering prices and removing the incentive for the poaching of wild tigers. But it costs well over US$1,000 a year to rear a tiger in captivity, and less than US$25 to have one killed in the wild, with a bullet or a simple snare made of cable or wire. Consumers will also prefer wild tigers to farmed cats, creating a black market that beefs up the profit from taking a tiger from the wild.
Better enforcement is vital, both in China and in tiger habitats. Currently, levels of enforcement vary widely, and success is sporadic. Governments of tiger range countries need to realize that tigers attract vast numbers of international tourists, and create a powerful incentive to protect their habitats, both to protect biodiversity and water security; in India some 300 streams and rivers, are fed by tiger habitat catchment forests.
Not everything went smoothly at Hua Hin. From the 13 tiger range countries there were only four full ministers present; others were deputy ministers or senior officials. A World Bank statement saying China's tiger farms should be shut down reportedly irritated some Chinese delegates. In a video message at Hua Hin, Mr Zoellick pledged the World Bank's support. But India was cold to the World Bank, sending a junior official. The World Bank saving tigers is a hard sell in India, where its track record shows wildlife habitat has always been 'acceptable collateral damage', says Mumbai-based conservationist Bittu Sahgal, who is also the editor of Sanctuary magazine. At one discussion in Hua Hin a delegate asked the World Bank whether, and why, loans still came with conditions. 'The World Bank had no answer,' said a source who was at the discussion.
The World Bank has raised the tiger a notch on the international agenda, and Hua Hin did indeed produce a ray of hope, including commitments from Thailand to step up protection. Separately last Friday, India said it would release 10 billion rupees to relocate families from tiger habitats. 'We have taken (the plight of the tiger) very seriously,' said minister Ramesh.
Yet this Year of the Tiger, the fate of the wild tiger continues to hang by a thread. Whether the tiger's call in the wild will still be heard 12 years from now, or if today's children will grow up to see the great cats just in cages, can be decided only if there is quick, strong action by range state governments.
A version of this article appeared in The Straits Times, Feb 1, 2010.
Nirmal Ghosh is a senior foreign correspondent for The Straits Times based in Bangkok, and also a conservationist and Trustee of The Corbett Foundation.