As the Chinese calendar prepares to welcome the Year of the Tiger this month, it won't be much of a party for the animals themselves. If anything, the occasion may simply push them closer to extinction.
Tigers are charismatic creatures that fire our imagination. William Blake used the image of the "tyger, tyger burning bright" to pose fundamental questions about creativity and morality. In 2004, the TV channel Animal Planet surveyed 50,000 people in 73 countries and found the tiger was "the world's favourite animal."
Indigenous societies considered tigers to be spirits or deities, legends depicting them taking human form. In Asia the tiger is the "king of beasts," and political leaders attribute to themselves the strength and power of these impressive animals. The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Nepal, North Korea and South Korea, and is the emblem of Sri Lankan separatists.
As a powerful carnivore, the tiger is used to symbolize bravery and valorize war. Advertisers enlist tigers to sell us everything from gasoline to sports teams and breakfast cereal.
But despite such tribute, tigers have not fared well at our hands. Having evolved over millions of years, tigers once ranged from Mesopotamia, Caucasia and Siberia, across Asia to Indonesia, but were eliminated from much of this territory.
Tigers are solitary and elusive, so counting them is difficult. More than 100,000 were believed to have lived in the wild in the early 20th century. Now only a few thousand remain, all under serious threat and classified as critically endangered.
As India's tigers neared extinction, officials launched conservation efforts in 1973. But after initial success, numbers continue to drop due to human population increase, habitat loss, depletion of prey and illegal hunting. In 2005, Sariska Reserve in the Indian state of Rajasthan announced that all their tigers had been killed by poachers. Likewise, by 2009, Panna Nature Reserve in Madhya Pradesh ("the Tiger State") had no tigers left.
In Russia, where tigers nearly disappeared in the 1940s, conservation laws allowed them to rebound. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, massive logging and poaching of wildlife for the Chinese market meant disaster for animals.
A major culprit is China, where economic power and use of tiger parts in traditional medicine is a lethal combination. Wealthy Chinese consider tiger skins a status symbol, using them in their homes for decoration. Chinese and Thai businessmen operate tiger farms as "safari parks" for tourists, breeding the animals and stockpiling body parts - which is where the real money is.
Tiger parts are sold as tonics and magical cures. Claws supposedly solve insomnia, whiskers relieve toothaches, body fat cures leprosy. A tiger's penis, believed to increase sexual power, fetches a small fortune while other body parts are considered aphrodisiacs. ("Tiger" in Sanskrit is vyaghra .)
Tiger-bone wine, sold openly at Chinese "safari parks," costs nearly $200 per bottle as a cure for arthritis and rheumatism. Although traditional medicine practitioners know these products lack medical value, and the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies opposes the tiger trade, markets remain strong.
The tiger market is part of the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade, surpassed only by illegal drugs and arms sales. Although poachers may be poor, traders at higher levels reap huge profits. Corrupt park guards, police and government officials form networks that are better organized than conservationists and governments.
The UN General Assembly sees the wildlife trade as organized crime, but because many do not consider the wildlife trade a priority, it remains a low-risk, high-profit form of criminal activity. National and international laws to protect tigers go unenforced. In 1975 the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species prohibited the tiger trade, and in 2007 decreed that tigers should not be bred for sale of their body parts. But the trade continued, and in 2007 China quietly approved selling "legally obtained" tiger parts.
Tiger farmers claim commercial farming will reduce poaching, but this rhetoric conceals self-interest. Farms will not displace trade in wild tigers, because purchasing animals killed by poachers is cheaper than farming them. Commercial farms will seek greater profits by promoting consumption, no doubt calling themselves "green" or "sustainable" operations. Legal trade only encourages a market for wild tiger parts, considered more potent thus bringing higher prices.
Proponents contend that exploiting animals is legitimate, that attitudes cannot change, that legal trade can be monitored and that bans cannot be enforced.
But we know the solutions: preserve habitats, stop resource extraction and infrastructural development (meaning financial institutions should not support such development), keep humans away from tigers (which means relocating people and providing them suitable resources), educate people about the value and importance of wildlife, stop corruption, enforce laws and totally ban trade in tiger parts.
Wishful thinking? It happened in Tibet, where tiger skins traditionally used for weddings and festivals were burned in the streets after the Dalai Lama denounced the practice.
These initiatives need real, top-level government commitment. They also need re-evaluation of our relationship with animals generally, something that just might be inspired by the Year of the Tiger.
John Sorenson is chairman of the Department of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.