Despite well-tomtomed conservation projects, tigers ( and other species) are facing an uphill struggle for survival. Since the acceleration of the Chinese economy in the 80’s, neighbouring India has lost out on ecological conservation. The Chinese, be they in mainland China or abroad, like to show off their wealth. And they like to do it in style. Dinner parties are indispensable items where are served soups made of ( Indian) tigers and wine made of tiger bone. Tiger whiskers and bones are used in Chinese medicine to cure respectively toothaches and joint pains, rheumatism,… Tiger penises are supposed to give sexual power. Moreover, the Chinese love to buy tiger skins. They like it so much that the demand outgrow the supply.
The rarity of tigers has pushed up prices and the pressure has increased on India, home of most of the world’s tiger population. In the rest of Asia, the tiger population has also fallen owing to poaching and habitat loss. Japan, one of the biggest consumers of tiger medicine, has failed to ban the trade despite signing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1980. An investigation conducted by an English NGO has revealed that almost half the stores in Tokyo admitted selling tiger pills and bone wine.
The two main bone routes pass through Nepal and Tibet while a third winds its way through Myanmar. Though China, which has only a handful of tigers left, banned the sale, trade continues.
There are less than 4000 tigers left in the world ( less than 2000 in India). Even one additional factory could cause the extinction of tigers due to an increase in demand. Every year, tens of tigers are killed by poachers. Usually they poison the animal or shoot it down. The Wildlife Protection Society of India has reported that tribals are paid something like US$ 15 to kill a tiger in the state of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India that is known as the “tiger state”. ( Because of its tiger population ( something like a quarter of India’s tiger population) and because of Madhya Pradesh state efforts to protect the tigers !) The killing method may cost US$ 1.50 for poison or US$ 9 for a steel trap. Middle-men earn upto US$ 1150 for a tiger skin and US$ 2500 for the bones. The trader sells it for US$ 5700.
One of the obstacles to stamping out poaching is the total failure of the judicial system to deal swiftly with poachers and traders. Moreover, there are repeated claims of bribery of officials and judges.
In India, many other species are suffering the same fate. An investigation in Tamil Nadu ( a state in south India) revealed that four lakh skins were available annually. Every year, many rhinos leopards are killed by poachers. The ivory trade still takes its toil of Asian elephants. The musk trade is estimated to be worth US$ 500 000. Trade in wool made from the skin of the endangered Tibetan antelope is lucrative. In Calcutta, antelope skin shawls were offered for US$ 630 and 715. The Mumbaï rate stand at US$ 630. Trade in antelope wool is prohibited by international as well as Indian laws. But wool is openly available in both cities.
In the 70’s, the first stage of Project Tiger ( an Indian project aimed at ensuring a viable population of Bengal tigers in their natural habitat) showed enthusiasm and political will to save the tigers. In the 80’s, it was hailed as an international success story with reduced poaching and increasing population of tigers. But the euphoria died out after the political will evaporated in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Since then, abuse of power and corruption have demoralized forest staffs. A report has proved the directorate failed to co-ordinate, assist or initiate field actions.
The increase in human population and the resultant rise in firewood consumption has left some areas unsuitable for tiger habitat. Across the country, essential forest habitat is being lost to mines, logging, hydroelectric power and irrigation schemes, orchards, tea plantations and aquaculture development. Mining industry devastates thousands of hectares of prime tiger habitat and many important protected areas have not yet received full legal notification.
In 2002, there were 3508 alive in the 27 Indian nature reserves. ( 40 000 at the end of the XIX° century, 2000 in the late 60’s ) In 2008, there were 1400 still living in the wild. The survival of the tigers seem to be ensured only in few National Parks : Corbett in the North, Kaziranga in the North-East, Kanha in the heartland and Bandipur in the South.