News Analysis: WILDLIFE AT RISK: Tiger, Tiger. ; A Big Cat Will Fetch Pounds 40,000 on the Black Market. No Wonder the Tiger's Light Is Almost Extinguished

By Mary Braid and Jonathan Owen | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), December 11, 2005 | Go to article overview
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News Analysis: WILDLIFE AT RISK: Tiger, Tiger. ; A Big Cat Will Fetch Pounds 40,000 on the Black Market. No Wonder the Tiger's Light Is Almost Extinguished


Mary Braid and Jonathan Owen, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


In the tiger house at London Zoo, specialist keeper Ray Charter is detailing the zoo's exhaustive and expensive efforts to impregnate Raika, its precious Sumatran tiger. Raika, seven, and her partner Lumpur, five, are both awesomely beautiful animals. They pace behind the bars as Mr Charter talks of foreign experts being flown in to attempt artificial insemination and worries that Raika, who has not yet produced young, never will.

Lumpur, weighing 250kg but as graceful as a dancer, occasionally roars, and jumps up against the metal bars separating him from his keeper, as Mr Charter reveals that Raika will be examined again on Wednesday in an attempt to find out why she has put on weight. The hope, of course, is that she is pregnant.

'She could be but I don't think so,' he says. 'Raika isn't coming on heat and Lumpur has no urge unless he gets the signal. We would know if they were mating because it would happen every 20 minutes over a five- day period.'

Raika and Lumpur are part of the zoo's contribution to the worldwide effort to save the tiger from extinction. All this palaver with Raika would be unnecessary if tigers were safe in the wild. But they aren't. In fact, the survival of the tiger as a species has never looked more precarious, with warnings last week from environmentalists in India " home to 60 per cent of all tigers " that the world's biggest cat may soon disappear from the subcontinent altogether.

For the first time, a clutch of tiger reserves is reported to be practically empty of tigers; others are said to be fast approaching that point. Wildlife lovers should feast their eyes on Raika and Lumpur, for pretty soon the only place you will be able to see tigers is in a zoo.

'It is five minutes to midnight for the tiger,' Callum Rankine, the World Wildlife Fund's head of species confirmed last week. 'This is an issue affecting not just India, but tigers worldwide. Poaching has always taken place, but finding that entire reserves are devoid of tigers is something different. The Indian government needs to wake up and see that it has a serious problem and make sure it does something about it.'

Few dispute that the situation in India and other tiger regions, from Sumatra to Siberia, is dire. In the past 100 years, tiger territories have shrunk as human populations have swollen, natural habitats have been lost and tigers have been hunted for their bones, skin and other body parts.

Tigers disappeared from Bali in the 1940s, from Afghanistan in the 1970s and from Java in the 1980s. Their numbers have crashed from 100,000 in 1900 to between 5,000 and 7,000. Some environmental groups even claim that there might be as few as 3,000 tigers left.

India has always been crucial in the battle to save the tiger. And Project Tiger, set up in 1973, was once held up as a model to the world. But the shine has now gone from the scheme amid distrust about the figures released to back its claims that it was winning the battle with poachers.

Around 6,000 guards protect India's 27 tiger reserves, yet this year has seen a rash of claims that reserves have been depleted by poachers. A tiger fetches pounds 40,000 on the black market. The animal's eyes, bones and tails are prized by practitioners of Chinese medicine, and tiger skins make rather fabulous and expensive, if unethical, rugs.

Project Tiger's figures seem to come from a different world from those provided by conservation groups. Between 1994 and 2003 the Wildlife Protection Society of India documented the poaching and seizure of 684 tigers in India. However, the official record with the Project Tiger Directorate of the Ministry of Environment and Forests shows that in 2003 only eight tigers and 15 leopards were poached.

'We have no idea of numbers,' says Peter Jackson, former chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group.

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News Analysis: WILDLIFE AT RISK: Tiger, Tiger. ; A Big Cat Will Fetch Pounds 40,000 on the Black Market. No Wonder the Tiger's Light Is Almost Extinguished
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