On the Chinese lunar calendar, 1998 marks the Year of the Tiger. If tigers themselves are to survive in the wild, it must also mark the start of a major new effort to save them.
Of all the world's wild beasts, the tiger stands closest to the crossroads of survival and extinction. Which path it takes will depend on the choices we make over the coming year.
Throughout the ages, the tiger has served as an object of awe and inspiration - a proud symbol of the feral side of nature whose "fearful symmetry," in the words of the poet William Blake, has influenced everything from art to advertising logos. But unless the effort to protect this most endangered of species is redoubled, the tiger will inspire future poets only from cereal boxes and service station signs.
From more than 100,000 at the turn of the century, the number of tigers in the wild has plummeted to no more than 6,000 today. As recently as 60 years ago, eight varieties of tiger prowled the earth, from the jungles of Java to the forests of the Caspian. Today, only five are left, and one of them - the south China tiger - seems poised to follow the first three into extinction.
The crisis is illustrated by recent news stories from India, which is home to more than half of the remaining wild tigers. On New Year's Day, four tigers, two of them cubs, were found poisoned to death on the outskirts of Dudwa National Park. The previous month, another tiger was killed in the state of Karnataka by eating meat laced with an explosive. Indian records indicate that at least 100 tigers are killed every year by poachers - a figure that doubtless falls far short of the real number, since most poaching goes undetected.
The incidents underscore two main threats to the tiger's existence: habitat loss and poaching. Once hunted for its skin, the tiger is now poached for its bones and organs, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines.
Although traffic in the body parts of endangered species is illegal, enforcement is lax. Indeed, a newly released study by TRAFFIC, the trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union, finds that, if anything, the sale in North America of medicines claiming to contain tiger bones is growing.
In New York, for instance, 10 out of 12 traditional Chinese pharmacies sell drugs that, according to their labels, contain tiger bones. Overall, of the 110 pharmacies surveyed in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Vancouver, and Toronto, 50 percent sold medicines containing, or claiming to contain, tiger and other endangered animal parts.
Legislation to close loopholes in the law is now before Congress, and the World Wildlife Fund strongly urges its passage. But because it is difficult to detect specific body parts in traditional medicines, enforcement is only part of the answer. Ultimately, strategies to save the tiger will work only if they address not only the tiger's needs, but those of the people who prey upon them.
The World Wildlife Fund, together with the Wildlife Conservation Society, has devised a multifaceted, science-based strategy to do just that. To curb trafficking, the strategy focuses both on stricter enforcement and on a collaboration with specialists in traditional Chinese pharmacology to develop and advocate substitutes for tiger bone medicines.
In the field, the World Wildlife Fund will provide training and equipment to improve anti-poaching and tracking operations in four areas that each represent a distinct type of tiger habitat: the Russian Far East; Virachay-Xe Piane-Yok Don, encompassing parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki, straddling India and Nepal; and the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest in India and Bangladesh.
In these four key areas, the focus is on people as well as tigers. In Nepal, for instance, one project encourages villagers to replant degraded forests (and expand the tiger's habitat) by allowing them to keep half the revenue from tourists. We must expand the use of ecotourism to make market incentives work for the tiger, not against it.
The strategy has many more components. We hope to succeed by addressing both the supply and demand sides of poaching and by attempting, wherever possible, to harmonize the requirements of tigers with those of the people who live near them.
Saving the tiger is one of the most urgent tasks conservationists face over the coming year. It will be a major challenge, but one we must not shirk. Unless we can turn 1998 into a year for the tiger by the next Year of the Tiger, the animal may be extinct.
* Kathryn S. Fuller is president of the World Wildlife Fund.