Reading between the tiger numbers: Debbie Banks reports on the unreported from the Delhi tiger meetings

 

Dr. Jhala

Dr. Jhala speaking at the International Conference on Tiger Conservation

 

You might have heard there was a tiger conference in Delhi last week, you’ve probably seen news about India’s tiger population, but did you hear anything about China’s absurd comment about tiger trade?

Probably not. The media shuffled out following India’s announcements, and the rest of the gathering of Tiger Range Countries was mostly a mela of sickly sweet back-patting sessions.

Countries stood up to present their “To Do” lists for the rest of 2011 and reported on progress since the St Petersburg International Tiger Forum. A number of delegates reported seizures of tiger parts since St Petersburg, and that the consignments were headed to China. Troubled by this, Bangladesh asked China what action they were taking to stop the trade.

Apart from the ban and public education since 1993, China has effective enforcement. Eh?! Yep, that’s right. China stated that they get information from NGOs in their country such as TRAFFIC, IFAW, “and sometimes” EIA, but they haven’t received any recent information about trade in tiger skin and bone and that’s because China has “good control of illegal trade in tiger parts”.

Surely we had misheard. But no, a delegate from China later confirmed their belief, that since EIA visits every year, and since they did not hear from us in 2010, they assumed it was because we couldn’t find any evidence of trade.

We didn’t visit China in 2010! Credit crunch and all that. That’s the only reason we didn’t provide them with a report that year! What a frightening insight into the logic that is failing the tiger.

So much for Premier Wen Jiabao’s commitment to “vigorously combat poaching and trade”, he needs to crack the whip and make sure there are more boots on the ground proactively gathering intelligence on the tiger traders, not waiting for the NGOs to point out the problem areas.

And excuse me, we still haven’t had a response to our findings from 2009!

There’s more. In their “To Do” list for the meeting, under items “Completed” China reported that they had undertaken inspections of tiger farms and markets between August and December 2010. When asked if there were any seizures, arrests or prosecutions resulting from these inspections, one delegate said he didn’t know, the other asked for the question in writing because he didn’t want to make the “mistake of misunderstanding” me. This from a delegate who had chaired an entire session of the meeting the day before!

But in a real twist that seriously undermines the good words of Wen Jiabao, China’s list refers to a skin registration scheme, allowing tiger skins to be labelled, so they could be “monitored”, not destroyed. This sounds strikingly similar to the scheme announced in 2007 to register, label and sell skins of “legal origin”, including those of farmed tigers. When asked, one delegate confirmed that skins from farmed tigers were being labelled and stored but he didn’t know if any had been sold, the other delegate…well my Scottish accent was still troubling him.

 Fear not tiger fans, we won’t give up!

Oh, and good luck to the Government of Kazakhstan who plan to reintroduce tigers south of Lake Balkhash. Close to the border with China.

And now for something to get happy about?

So, India’s tiger population is an estimated 1706 adults, a higher number than indicated by the 2006 estimate of 1411. But does it really reflect an increase in the tiger population?

Compared to 2006, there were additional tiger areas covered by the surveys in 2010, including the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, parts of Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Assam. Discounting those additions, the scientists say there has been a 12% increase in areas surveyed both in 2006 and 2010.

Reading between the numbers there are some surprises, with news that Kanha Tiger Reserve, the jewel in the crown of the self-styled “Tiger State” of Madhya Pradesh, has lost tigers, that too despite more regular monitoring. The new champions are in the Western Ghats, where poaching is less prevalent, and where that landscape has emerged as host to the largest single population of wild tigers anywhere in the world.

Tiger in Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary

More good news in the north, where some populations outside protected areas are stable and showing signs of increase in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, despite being close to tiger trafficking borders.

But there’s no time to do cartwheels. In fact, the lead scientist overseeing the work, Dr YV Jhala from the Wildlife Institute of India, and the Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, both went to great lengths during the media scrum to highlight some hard-hitting truths of considerable concern.

For example, tiger occupancy has declined considerably, down from 93,600 sq km to 72,800 sq km. That is a massive 20,000 sq km that is now devoid of tigers, compared to just four years ago, and that too outside of the protected areas. While the density of the tiger population in these areas might not be high, they are critical for linking the otherwise isolated tiger populations, and thus the long-term survival of wild tigers. Finding out where and how should be number one on the Government of India’s “To Do” list. Hmm, we’re looking forward to the release of the detailed data and maps.

Debbie Banks Senior Campaigner