Finding a cure for the tiger trade

Fears for India's declining wild tiger population continue to grow as fresh disclosures claim that a thriving trade in skins and body parts exists in neighbouring countries. Videos released recently by two non-governmental organisations show ceremonial clothes made of tiger and leopard skins for sale in Lhasa, strengthening the apprehension among conservation organisations that illegal commerce is driving the species to extinction in many reserves. The data on the lucrative trade assembled by the Government of India's Tiger Task Force 2005 provide a detailed account of poaching and smuggling: official records from South Korea and Japan for two-and-a-half decades show that 500 to 1000 tigers were killed to provide tonnes of bones and other body parts to make potions, tablets, and even wine. As an important tiger range country, India has its vulnerability to poaching and trade repeatedly exposed in inter-governmental fora such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There are depressing reports from the Environmental Investigation Agency (an NGO involved in the Tibet investigation) of an established smuggling route for tiger parts through Nepal and Myanmar. The shocking extent of wildlife trade was confirmed when customs officials seized, not long ago, 31 tiger skins and over 580 leopard skins in China's Tibet.

The national response to the tiger crisis has been fitful since the Task Force report was submitted last month. It has come to be dominated by a skewed debate on the question of coexistence of tigers and people, shifting the focus away from priorities such as the creation of a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. It is significant that India was blacklisted by CITES last year, along with Gambia, for failing to crack down on wildlife trade. CITES lifted the ban on trade in listed species after India offered to form a wildlife crime bureau as a remedial measure. Surprisingly, the Government of India has failed to deliver on this commitment. It is heartening that the National Advisory Council Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, has taken note of the expos� by the EIA and the Wildlife Protection Society of India on the Tibet tiger trade and assured the two NGOs that the bureau will indeed be set up. Cooperation with China is also to be enhanced to end cross-border trade. There is another first order issue that is no less neglected: prevention of poaching. The Ministry of Environment and Forests must recognise that tigers need all the security and scientific help possible to survive. It must see the damning irony in the observation made by the Chief Wildlife Warden of Chhattisgarh to international media: tiger populations have grown in forests controlled by armed Maoist rebels because poachers fear them. This is an unwitting endorsement of the view that national parks and sanctuaries will benefit immensely from a professional, well-equipped anti-poaching force formed with the active involvement of State governments. Procrastination will tragically eliminate many more tigers.

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