The magnificent tiger could, in the early part of this century, be extinct in the wild. That is the unthinkable yet undeniable situation facing the lord of the jungle. The only way to stave off such a disaster is for the two largest developing economies, China and India, to take urgent action to control the trade in tiger parts and to protect habitats.
Several subspecies of the tiger (Bali, Javan and Caspian) have become extinct in the last few decades, while others (South China, Indochinese) are critically endangered. The latest census confirms that the number of Bengal tigers in India -- the single largest population -- has dwindled by more than 50% in the last five years to fewer than 1,500 in the wild, which experts say could be the tipping point for extinction.
How has the tiger's fate come to this? The foremost reason is poaching to meet demand for tiger products used in traditional medicines in China and other parts of East Asia. The other crucial factor is the continuous loss of tiger habitat, which is down by about 40% across India in the last decade, along with which has disappeared much of its prey.
To make matters worse, there now is relentless pressure from tiger farmers in East Asia to legalize the trade in the bones, fur, paws, penis and teeth of their animals. On the surface, the case made for legalizing the sale of tiger parts is beguiling. By flooding the market with parts from farm-raised tigers, it's argued, prices will plummet, reducing the profitability of poaching. A cited analogy: People don't hunt wild turkeys for Thanksgiving when supermarkets overflow with farmed supplies.
But to reduce poaching, those who raise tigers in captivity would need to undercut the cost of supplying the parts from wild tigers. That's improbable. Poaching in India, by poisoning or with simple steel traps, costs less than $100 a tiger (plus transport and other costs). Raising one in captivity -- even three or more to a cage -- costs about $3,000.
Conservationists warn that legalizing the tiger trade would be the death knell for tigers in the wild. That's because it will always be cheaper to hunt tigers, and poaching will be less risky if poached parts can be easily laundered -- that is, passed off as coming from captive-bred animals.
Without DNA analysis, even lion bones are indistinguishable from tiger's, and they too are sold on East Asia's black market. So India's poachers also now are hunting the last lions in Asia -- about 350 in the Gir forest in the western state of Gujarat. In just two weeks in May, poachers killed a dozen lions.
India still offers the best hope for the tigers' future because it has the most tigers and a conservation infrastructure. In 1973, the Indian government initiated Project Tiger, designating protected areas and wildlife corridors. This led to a dramatic recovery -- their numbers nearly tripled by the 1990s. But that commitment faltered, and the population collapsed again.
What now? It is essential to deal with poaching and the demand for tiger parts in traditional medicine immediately. The World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies states that tiger parts are not necessary for traditional medicines, and alternatives are available and effective. So there are solid reasons to strongly enforce the international ban on the tiger trade, and for China to keep its 1993 domestic ban securely in place.
Vital too are investments in India to protect habitats. Tiger reserves and forests need an adequate number of field protection staff equipped with modern technology. Forest rangers, who confront dangers from poachers, also merit better pay and protection; today many of those jobs go unfilled.
Most important, the communities abutting tiger habitat, some of which are among the poorest in India, must have a stake in protecting tigers. The residents need to gain from conservation efforts and eco-tourism: There are very few places in the world where tourists can see wild tigers. Poachers could be given rewards for tracking and photographing the animals for monitoring. They might be given new avenues for livelihood: In the forest reserves of Periyar in India's southern state of Kerala, for example, former poachers now work as tourist guides.
The critical status of the tiger, a creature at the top of the animal kingdom, says a great deal about how little we value biodiversity in a global economy. China's and India's impressive 9% growth rates would be tarnished if, in the process, the planet should lose tigers and other wildlife for good.
As the symbol of countries, teams and corporations, the tiger has helped sell beer, sports goods and breakfast cereal. Now it could use some high-profile reciprocity. Support from private corporations -- such as Exxon Mobil's Save the Tiger Fund -- as well as the Asian business diaspora and international agencies could prove decisive. But the moment for action is now. Without immediate financial and political commitments, it will be too late to save this mesmerizing animal.