Even as China celebrates the start of the propitious Year of the Tiger this Sunday, conservationists fear the next 12 months could turn out to be rather inauspicious for the Big Cat.

Since the last ‘Tiger Year’ was celebrated in 1998, amid similar renewed pledges to Save the Cat, the tiger population has halved to 3,200. There are less than 50 wild tigers in China today. The South China Tiger has not even been seen in the wild in recent years, and many fear it has joined a growing list of extinct sub-species.

Much of the poaching in China is driven by demand for tiger parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the bustling black markets of southern Guangdong, a tiger paw can still fetch as much as $1,000.

The government banned trade in 1993, which somewhat halted the decline. But it also sanctioned the setting up of controversial captive breeding farms, home to more than 6,000 tigers at present, from where parts are often harvested.

The government is now considering legalising trade in tiger parts, a move conservationists say will be the last nail in the coffin for the tiger. It argues that legalising trade and captive breeding are crucial to curbing poaching and illegal trade. But wildlife groups warn that the farms have helped to create additional demand, and point out that releasing captive-bred tigers in the wild is a fraught exercise.

“The Chinese government thinks the farms are not that big of a negative for conservation,” Xu Hongfa, China head of Traffic, a wildlife group leading the campaign to stop tiger trade, told The Hindu in a recent interview. But if China reopens trade, he says, the increased demand will be difficult to control.

The debate on tiger farms underscores the confusion that has surrounded strategies to save the tiger. Xie Yan, director of the China programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the government has begun to realise that the current strategy is, indeed, a problem, though there is still a debate on how to deal with the 6,000 tigers in captivity.

Yin Hong, deputy director of China’s State Forestry Administration and one of the officials leading the government’s tiger strategy, even refutes the suggestion that TCM demand has led to poaching. “It is irresponsible to blame the previous practice of using tiger bones in TCM for the drastic reduction of global wild tiger species,” Ms. Yin said this week, defending the government’s conservation policy.

But Indian officials say the spurt in poaching in India, with at least 84 killings reported last year, has also been driven by China’s black market. The fate of India’s 1,400 wild tigers too rests on Beijing’s plans.

The Chinese government last month announced a new initiative to curb poaching around 20 natural reserves, but did not commit itself to phasing out the farms. Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh told The Hindu the measures were “a small step forward.”

But the last hope for the tiger rests with a last ditch plan that the Chinese government and the World Bank are working on: a multi-million dollar, first-of-its-kind project to expand reserves and address human-tiger conflicts in northern China and Siberia, which will be unveiled at a September meeting in Russia.

Last month, at the first Asian ministerial conference on tiger conservation, all tiger range countries pledged to work towards doubling tiger numbers before 2022. Unless that promise is kept, wildlife groups will have little reason to cheer when the next Year of the Tiger comes around.

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