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The tiger, Panthera tigris, one of the world's most magnificent and revered animals, stands near the brink of extinction. Since the turn of the century, its habitat and numbers have been reduced by up to 95 per cent. For a million years the "king of the jungle" lorded over a territory stretching from eastern Turkey to North Korea, its forest home extending northward to Siberia and southward into Bali. In this century alone, three sub-species of tiger were driven into extinction, including the Bali, Javan, and Caspian. Tragically, the remaining five sub-species are at risk of meeting the same fate. The tiger faces an onslaught of poaching throughout its range. In 1991, one-third of the Siberian or Amur tigers were killed to meet the demand for their bones and other parts. These are used in the production of traditional medicine which is sold in the markets of China, Taiwan, and Korea, and even exported to the USA and Europe.

In 1993, following a tip-off from TRAFFIC India, WWF's local wildlife monitoring network, New Delhi police seized a half ton (500kg) of tiger bones, representing the remains of between 40 to 50 tigers. Some of India's 23 tiger reserves are affected by political activism, and others are threatened by deforestation, overgrazing, and mining.

In October 1995, the Indian Government told the CITES Asia Regional Meeting in Tokyo that it had seized a half ton of tiger bone so far that year. During the same gathering, Indonesia stated that poaching of the Sumatran tiger was "uncontrolled" and said illegal hunting and trading pressures on rhinos and tigers were "overwhelming". Earlier in 1995, Cambodia reported that two to three of its tigers were being killed per month, and in Vietnam five known deaths were confirmed during the first six months of 1995. Nepal also reported last year that nine seizures of tiger parts, most of them of complete skeletons, had occurred in villages adjoining two protected areas. Experience has shown that this is only the tip of the iceberg because the trade is clandestine; tigers could be dying throughout their range at the rate of one a day. In November 1994, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) member nations agreed unanimously to strengthen international efforts to halt the illegal trade and urged tiger range and consuming states to voluntarily prohibit internal traffic of the tiger and its parts and derivatives. Some CITES member states, including China, South Korea, and Taiwan, have banned internal trade in tiger bone and tiger products. Japan, however, has not yet done so.

A few CITES member nations have also begun work with traditional medicine communities to develop strategies for suspending or eliminating the use of tiger parts and derivatives. In October 1995, TRAFFIC East Asia organized and WWF hosted a landmark meeting of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners and traders from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. A frank dialogue, opened between the highly skilled practitioners of TCM and conservationists, promises to lead to improved understanding and possible cooperation between the groups.

Despite these efforts, the illegal trade continues and the tiger is being stalked into extinction. Many people living in the vicinity of protected areas resent the existence of wildlife reserves. Sometimes they hate tigers, particularly when the animals prey on their livestock and even occasionally kill people. Resolving the conflict between park managers and local people, and overcoming the threat to the tiger's habitat both inside and outside protected areas in the tiger range states by development projects - including large-scale logging and mining - are the biggest challenges facing conservationists today.

Ways have to be found to combine nature conservation with the needs, rights, and well-being of local communities. If their livelihoods are not secured, these disgruntled subsistence farmers, livestock owners, and gatherers of forest products will do nothing to stop poaching. They must also be compensated for loss of livestock and rewarded for providing information leading to the apprehension of poachers and illegal contraband.

If the tiger is seen as a pest - rather than a source of pride and income - villagers will help professional poachers to track down tigers and supply wildlife traders with the hides and bones of an animal that their ancestors both feared and worshipped.

The tiger struggles for living space in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. In India, where about 60 per cent of the earth's wild tigers still roam, the human population has increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years. If the demand for tiger products can be eliminated and anti-poaching measures stepped up until tiger populations are restored, conservationists can prevent one of conservation's most important symbols from its imminent fate: extinction early in the next century. Small numbers of tigers could linger on for some decades, but the species would die off slowly. The world may soon begin a countdown as it did for the Javan tiger as it tried in vain to stop the species from vanishing from the earth. The last traces were seen in 1981.

Past experience has shown that, if we let down our guard even momentarily, as the conservation community did in the late 1980s, other subspecies of tiger could become extinct. The South China tiger, whose numbers have plummeted from 4,000 in 1949 to fewer than 50 today, is already virtually extinct and chances of recovery are remote. Equally imperiled is the Amur tiger which has faced a disastrous decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we do not respond immediately to the plight of the tiger and the development needs of the communities that live in its range - most of which is outside protected wildlife areas - we will witness during our lifetime or our children's the loss of one of the world's most precious natural treasures. We can respond to the crisis, as WWF did in 1972, when it launched Operation Tiger. We can rally support for conservation programs in the 14 tiger range countries and breathe new life into Operation Tiger. The world community can endorse the mission of the Global Tiger Forum, initiated in New Delhi in March 1994, and the efforts of individual countries, and bring the big cat back from the precipice. Like the tiger itself, we must fight for its survival.