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Asia's Big Cat Struggles in Year of the Tiger

  • Peter Simpson

The Year of the Tiger starts in a few days in China. Among the elaborate celebrations will be the start of a last-ditch drive to save the 50 remaining wild tigers in the country.

China is awash with images of orange and black-striped big cats as the country prepares to usher in the Year of the Tiger on Sunday.

Yet for all the traditional sentiment toward one of the most revered animals in the Chinese Zodiac, 2010 could be a make-or- break year for wild tigers in China.

Since the last Year of the Tiger 12 years ago, the worldwide population of wild tigers has almost halved to 3,200.

Zhu Chunquan is the conservation director of the wildlife protection group WWF in Beijing. He says unless action is taken now, there will be no more wild tigers in China by the next year of the Tiger.

"If no immediate action is taken to protect the wild tiger's population and habitat, then there is a high risk of extinction in 12 years," he said.

The South China tiger has not been seen in the wild for 25 years and is believed to be extinct.

China's three other species are also in peril.

The WWF this week said there are fewer than 50 Chinese tigers left in the wild - and the pressure on them is mounting as the country continues its breakneck economic development.

As cities and farms expand, tigers lose places to live and food to eat. Poachers threaten both the tigers and their prey.

Compounding the threat is the illegal trade of tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, which continues despite a 17-year ban on the practice.

In northeastern China near the Russian border, the struggle to bring the Amur - or Siberian - tiger back from the brink has the backing of the World Bank.

It is funding a program worth several billion dollars to boost the population to a sustainable level.

The head of the bank's China environment program, Carter Brandon, says the survival of the species is no longer an issue of conservation but instead one of development.

"The area required for a sizable tiger population is much greater than China can put aside in the form of formal protective areas," explained Brandon. "Protective areas are great but there's a lot of people up in the northeast, and each tiger requires something like 70,000 hectares - 700 square kilometers - for a sustainable area for 50 tigers. That's a huge area," he said.

Despite the grim warnings, the WWF's Zhu says there is room for optimism.

He says China shows the political will to save wild tigers by signing on to international agreements.

And efforts similar to those used to save the panda from extinction are now being used to help the tiger.

"With awareness increasing and also more government actions and investment and with also local communities and local forestry support, and the global community's help, we believe the tiger's recovery in China has great hope," Zhu said.

The battle to save the tiger is of course not exclusive to China.

The first Asian ministerial conference on the issue was held in Thailand last week.

It set a goal of doubling the wild population by the start of the next tiger year in 2022.

And an international tiger summit will convene in September in Russia.