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February 9, 2010

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Aye of the tiger as conservation efforts pay off

CHINA has an estimated 50 or fewer tigers left in the wild, but efforts to stabilize one population in the northeast were starting to pay off, a conservationist said yesterday.

Tigers once roamed huge areas of China, right up to the now-booming east coast.

Their population has collapsed due to habitat destruction on the back of rapid economic development and poaching for tiger products to use in traditional medicine.

About 10 still live in the southwest province of Yunnan, some 15 in Tibet, and 20 or so in the northeastern Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, said Xie Yan, China program director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The South China tiger is probably already extinct, she told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China in Beijing, ahead of the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which starts on Sunday.

"The number of wild tigers left in China is very depressing," Xie said. "We have less than 50 individuals in the wild. Populations in Tibet and the south are still dropping.

"The Siberian tiger is now stable, and maybe increasing a little, but the number is still very small."

Conservationists said the trade in skin and bones was still booming in countries such as China, which has banned the use of tiger parts in medicine.

Skins sell as rugs and cloaks on the black market, fetching up to US$20,000 for a single pelt.

Activists said tough laws and occasional well-publicized clampdowns could not compensate for a crucial problem - the lack of strong and consistent enforcement.

Barely 3,500 tigers are estimated to be roaming wild across 12 Asian countries and Russia, compared with about 100,000 a century ago, according to conservationists.

In December, a Yunnan court sentenced a man to 12 years in jail for killing and eating what may have been the last wild Indochinese tiger in China.

Xie said the Tibetan and Yunnan tigers had the bleakest futures, as their populations were both tiny and isolated.

The Siberian tigers, though small in number in China, were far more numerous just across the border in Russia, where about 500 still live in an area with a far lighter human presence.

"We think that the best hope for wild tigers in China is in the northeast, because it is connected to the bigger population in Russia," she said.


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