NEW DELHI — India's tigers will vanish within a handful of years, environmentalists warned Wednesday in a stinging indictment of the governments of India and China, which they say have done almost nothing to stem the rapid decline of the big cats.
Trade in poached Indian tigers is flourishing across the border in Chinese-controlled Tibet, where organized crime groups sell them for use in traditional medicines, ceremonial clothing and as souvenirs, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the group Environmental Investigation Agency.
"In China the police have decided to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of tigers in India," said Belinda Wright, the director of the Wildlife Protection Society. The inaction comes despite China's tough laws against trading in endangered animals, she noted.
Pictures secretly taken in Tibet and shown at a Wednesday news conference showed dozens of tiger and leopard skins openly on sale. In some photos, Chinese police officers laughed and posed with people wearing costumes made of tiger skins.
In India, meanwhile, there is no effective force to combat tiger poaching despite years of talking about it, she said.
"It is the politics in India that is killing the tiger, the petty agendas and personal rivalries," Wright told reporters.
One reserve lost all tigers
Last year, officials were forced to acknowledge that poachers had wiped out every tiger in Sariska, one of India's premier tiger reserves, and that Indian wildlife officials had been long exaggerating the number of tigers across the country. But despite a loud public and official outcry, Wright said tiger protection had not improved.
She gave no estimates for the number of tigers that remain in India.
In 2001, the U.S. National Geographic Society estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 Bengal — or Indian — tigers existed in the wild, about half in India.
But conservationists say the true figure may be closer to 2,000 — and possibly as few as several hundred.
"We need to start imagining a world without the great predators ... It is about to become a reality. I stand before you completely defeated. So little has been done since we exposed this last year. The countries involved India, China and Nepal have done so little to curb the slaughter. India will soon have no tigers."
"It's just a handful of years before you have none left."
No comment from governments
Kalpana Balkhiwala, a spokeswoman for the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which is responsible for tiger conservation, said the ministry had no comment on the report. Chinese officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Both the Indian and Chinese governments received copies of the report before the findings were made public, Wright said.
Trade in endangered species, including the Bengal tiger, is banned under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.
But the high premium attached to tiger skins, and the use of other tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicines, have created a thriving illegal trade.
An expose last year by Wright's group and the Environmental Investigation Agency helped curb the use of tiger skins in Tibetan ceremonial dress, particularly after the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, denounced the practice.
Now, she said, Chinese are buying pelts or body parts as souvenirs. "Chinese businessmen are buying it for home decor," Wright said.
The market will continue to expand unless the governments take a strong stand against it, said Debbie Banks, the head of Environmental Investigation Agency's tiger campaign.
"The trade is run by highly organized networks who have far to much invested to let a few isolated raids and random seizures deter them," Banks said in a statement.
During the investigation, researchers even came across a ceremonial tent made of 108 tiger skins. Its owners said it was several hundred years old, said Nitin Desai, one of the researchers. But it had recently been repaired and several of the skins looked new, he said.
"I looked at it and said: that is the end of the tiger — 108 skins," he said.
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