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Wednesday, January 20, 1999 Published at 16:18 GMT


Mission to save the tiger

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A group of international experts is starting work in Britain in an attempt to save the tiger.

The group is made up of wildlife experts appointed by CITES, the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

BBC Environment Correspondent Tim Hirsch: A tiger a day is killed in India
Its first job is to visit countries where there has been a significant trade in tiger parts, to check that legislation and enforcement have stopped the trade.

Tigers are frequently killed so their bones and other parts can be used in traditional Far Eastern medicine, although CITES forbids all trade in tiger products.

[ image: Bengal tigers make up nearly half of the surviving wild tigers]
Bengal tigers make up nearly half of the surviving wild tigers
The temptation is high, as many poachers can earn as much from a single tiger as they could in a year.

The group starts in London, where tiger products used to be freely available in some Chinese pharmacies.

Police and customs officials believe now, though, that the trade is negligible.

Work in tiger states

The team then goes to the USA and Canada, before flying to the Far East to investigate law enforcement there.

It will also visit countries which have tigers in the wild - known as "range states" - to see anti-poaching programmes at work.

Environment Correspondent Robert Pigott: Surviving numbers are shrinking
These include Russia, China, India, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The experts will report to CITES, and will prepare the way for a policy mission, which will probably go to India and China later in the year.

That will be led by a senior British official from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Robert Hepworth who told BBC News Online he is hoping to raise consciousness:

[ image: One dead tiger means riches undreamed of]
One dead tiger means riches undreamed of
"If we cannot get ordinary people there enthusiastic about their tigers, there will be little chance of improving things. The message, from a UN-led convention, is that there is a very strong international commitment to tiger conservation.

"And we shall say the whole eco-system needs conserving, including the species on which tigers prey.

No funds

"Perhaps you cannot put a value on what tigers mean for a country's economy. But you can certainly put a value on conserving an eco-system."

The CITES mission will have no money to give away.

[ image: Tiger numbers are down by over 90% in a century]
Tiger numbers are down by over 90% in a century
"But we shall offer the range states better chances of getting funds from international sources", says Mr Hepworth, "For example, they will be able to bid for funds from the World Bank's Global Environment Facility, and from non-government organisations."

London Zoo is one group involved in identifying and funding projects in range states.

There are now thought to be no more than 7,500 tigers in the wild, and possibly as few as 5,000. Yet a century ago there were probably 100,000 or more.

Loss of habitat

Three sub-species have become extinct in the last 60 years - the Bali, Caspian and Java tigers. Nearly half of all wild tigers belong to the Bengal sub-species, found in India and several of its neighbours.

The other sub-species are the Indo-Chinese, Siberian, South China and Sumatra tigers. All are threatened by habitat loss and poaching for the traditional medicine trade.

Few experts believe any of the tigers has much chance of surviving in the wild without a radically new approach to conservation.

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