China wants Olympic tourists to come for tigers too

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2003:

BEIJING–A camera trap set up by staff of the Hunchan Nature
Reserve in early February captured the first known photo of a wild
Amur tiger in northeastern China.
Members of the nature reserve staff positioned the camera
after hearing from a local farmer that an unknown large predator had
killed a mule that morning. The tiger tripped the electric eye that
operates the camera upon returning to the carcass late at night.
The photo provides “strong evidence that tigers are crossing
from the Russian Far East to repopulate previous tiger strongholds,”
said the Wildlife Conservation Society, whose equipment the Hunchan
team used.

Best known for operating the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium,
Central Park Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo, all in New York City, the
Wildlife Conservation Society applies the profits to funding
overseas field research.
If Amur tigers are finding suitable habitat in China, with
adequate wild prey and safety from poaching, the species may yet
survive a population crash in Siberia that has cut their numbers from
an estimated 400 in 1997 to just 190 at the end of 2002.
Siberian authorities seized six poached tiger pelts in
December alone, Agence France-Presse reported. Logging, drought,
forest fires, meat hunting by hungry humans, and three very harsh
winters in a row have meanwhile squeezed tigers’ habitat and prey
base, inhibiting successful reproduction.
“Last winter 90% of the tiger cubs starved,” Agence
France-Presse explained. “Ecologists predict the story could be the
same this winter and could push the predators toward inhabited areas
in search of food.”

The saiga saga

The decline of Amur tigers accompanied but was probably not
directly related to a 97% loss of the population of saiga antelope,
once the staple of the diet of the Caspian tiger, believed to be
extinct since the early 1960s.
Saiga numbers soared briefly after the 1990 collapse of the
Soviet Union preceded a collapse of the huge collectives farms which
held much of the available habitat. As less land came under
cultivation, saiga increased–but have since almost disappeared.
“In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes
of Russia and Kazakhstan,” Fred Pearce reported in the February 12
edition of New Scientist. “Today fewer than 30,000 remain, most of
them females. So many males have been shot for their horns, which
are exported to China to be used in traditional fever cures, that
the antelope may not be able to recover unaided.”
Hunters and poachers pursuing saiga on motorcycles killed off
about half of the saiga by 1998. Researchers believe the biggest
reason for the subsequent further fall in numbers was failure to
Saiga resemble deer, whose population soars when the gender
ratio is skewed toward females. As among deer, saiga bucks keep
small harems if they can. But the saiga gender skew is now so
pronounced that the remaining males apparently cannot mate enough for
reproduction to outrace mortality.
Said saiga expert Eleanor Milner-Gulland of Imperial College
in London, “We don’t know of any other case in biology where the sex
ratio has gone so wrong that fecundity has crashed in this way.”
Added Fauna & Flora International zoologist Abigail
Entwistle, “This is the most sudden change in fortune for a large
mammal species recorded in recent times.”
The closest parallels would be with the 19th century
destruction of the passenger pigeon and North American bison. Even
African and Asian elephants have not been hunted and poached as
ruthlessly as the saiga.
“In the early 1990s,” Pearce recalled, “groups such as the
World Wildlife Fund actively encouraged the saiga hunt, promoting
its horn as an alternative to the horn of the endangered rhino.”
The loss of saiga could have been catastrophic for any
remaining Caspian tigers, but may not have affected Amur tigers
much, since their range as of 1993 only touched the saiga range,
without greatly overlapping. However, Amur tigers–if allowed to
do so– could have followed abundant saiga from the Russian Far East
into Mongolia, whose native tigers were annihilated decades ago.
Heavily wooded northern Mongolia might support tigers, if
any got there, but the recent severe winters have hit southern and
central Mongolia even harder than Siberia. Mongolians returning to
the land after the collapse of Communism and state-run industry
increased the national livestock herd from 24 million animals circa
1990 to 32 million by 1998. The winter of 2000-2001 killed 3.5
million cattle, goats, and sheep; the winter of 2001-2002 killed
4.8 million; and more than two million were already dead by the
beginning of December 2002.

“There are no tigers.”

The confirmation of the existence of at least one wild tiger
in northern China came amid a heated dispute over whether or not the
South China tiger is extinct in the wild.
In early November 2002, after eight months of field
research, Minnesota Zoo conservation director and Tiger Foundation
chair Ron Tilson reported that “There are no tigers. There is no
prey and no habitat. All of China’s tiger conservation areas have
been converted to spruce and fir forests,” Tilson said. “I did not
even hear any birds. We did not find tigers, anything left by
tigers, or much for a tiger to eat. “Based on the fact that people
let their animals graze in the forest and only one was reported
missing,” during the five-province study by a multinational team,
“our conclusion was that there were no tigers.”
Tilson told Oryx, the journal of Fauna & Flora
International, that “Our Chinese colleagues declined to have their
names on either our final reports or manuscripts because they
believed it would threaten their positions.”
Tilson found just 47 severely inbred South China tigers in
captivity, few of whom he believed to be fertile.
A World Wildlife Fund study in 1991 reported that tigers
might persist in 11 parts of China. Tilson and team were excluded
from the Wuyunjie Provincial Reserve, believed to be the best
remaining South China tiger habitat, but discredited official
Chinese claims about 34 alleged discoveries of tiger trails since
1990, three of them in 2002. Tilson said plaster casts of the
purported pug marks were often either too large or too indistinct to
be verifiably from a tiger, and that villagers who said they saw
tigers proved to be unable to distinguish them from leopards.
The Tilson study was partially funded by Save Chinese Tigers,
a London-based charity. But Save Chinese Tigers founder and director
Quan Li told Delma J. Francis of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that
Tilson’s findings were “A little bit of a joke,” citing two recent
ox killings by unknown predators in Fujian Province and a tiger
sighting reported in November by farmers in Hubei Province.

Tiger Moon

Quan Li, an organization called Chinese Tigers South Africa,
and the China State Forestry Research Station on November 26 signed
an agreement to prepare captive-bred tigers for release into the wild
by 2008, coinciding with the Beijing Olympics.
“Selected tiger cubs from Chinese zoos will be sent to South
Africa, where they will be trained to hunt in a 300-square-kilometre
area secured by the two nonprofit organizations,” Hamish McDonald
reported from Beijing in December 2002 for the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Once able to hunt their own food,” McDonald continued, “they will
be returned to a pilot reserve in China, where the habitat and prey
animals have been restored.”
This followed an October 2002 announcement by South African
wildlife filmmaker John Varty that he and his brother Dave would
combine several former cattle and sheep ranches into a preserve
called Tiger Moon.
There, spokesperson Mike Mentis siad, they would “create a
viable population of highly endangered South China tigers, with the
aim of later restoring wild tigers to their natural habitat in South
China. Tiger Moon will restore a large African landscape to its
previous biodiversity and potential,” Mentis promised, “except that
the South China tiger will replace the African lion as top predator.
Tiger Moon will make possible a similar project in southern China,”
Mentis added.
Not known until Quan Li and her husband Stuart Bray sued the
Varty brothers in the Johannesburg High Court in February was that
the project planners had already split, after working together since
August 2001 and after Bray invested $5 million in it.
“The trouble arose when Quan Li wanted the Vartys to pump
more more money into the project, according to court papers,” wrote
Gillian Anstey of the Johannesburg Times. “She pulled out in
October, putting Bray, who had supplied most of the money, in a
difficult situation. Yet Quan claims that it was the Vartys who left
the project in October,” Anstey continued.
In the lawsuit, Bray reportedly accuses the Vartys of having
“misappropriated and mismanaged funds.”
Longtime captive tigers have never been returned into the
wild, although Billy Arjan Singh of India has reputedly
rehabilitated and released several short-term captives.
In the U.S., private tiger breeders often claim that they
are preserving the tiger gene pool to facilitate reintroduction,
even though almost all tigers in private hands are descended from
tigers sold by zoos during the 1970s and early 1980s because they
were considered genetically redundant.
Claims that the wild tiger population might eventually be
replenished through captive breeding have also been used by Chinese
zoos and wildlife parks during the past decade to rationalize the
common practice of feeding live prey to tigers as a public spectacle.
The latest twist on the theme followed the Christmas Day 2002
import of 100 Bengal tigers from the Si Racha Tiger Farm in Thailand
by a firm called Sanya Maidi Creations, in the city of Sanya. Sanya
city officials said the tigers were to be bred for a Thai/Chinese
tiger restoration project. The Jiangnan Times of Nanjing reported,
however, that the tigers would stock a new wildlife park called Love
World, funded by Thai investors, and that the park would sell tiger
bones and meat. The Shanghai Youth Daily said that China would ask
the Convention on Inter-national Trade in Endangered Species for
permission to export tiger products.
“This is a totally baseless rumor. Selling tiger meat is
illegal, and we would never do it,” a Sanya representative told
London Independent writer Martin Fackler.
Bengal tigers, native to several bordering nations, are not
native to China. The nearest wild population is in Nepal, blocked
from descending into Tibet and Sinkiang province by the Himalayas.
Nepal during the early 1990s was lauded for protecting tigers
and one-horned rhinos in Royal Chitwan National Park. In 1996,
however, as Communism was in global eclipse, a Maoist insurgency
erupted. Supporting themselves in part by poaching, the rebels
killed at least 25 rhinos in the last half of 2002, while tigers,
their natural prey depleted, killed as many as 10 rhinos.
The fighting has cost at least 7,300 human lives, primarily civilians.

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