Indochinese tigers remain elusive in SW China

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Professor Shi Kun, along with a group of Chinese researchers, has spent months trekking in remote forests in southwest China, searching for clues that might lead them to the rare Indochinese tiger.

The 60-strong team has been conducting a comprehensive survey on the endangered species since March, said Shi, director of the wildlife research institute at Beijing Forestry University.

The program, which focuses on the species' population, food sources and ecological environment, is expected to be finished by the end of this year, Shi said.

The surveyed areas include several nature reserves in Yunnan province, where traces of the tiger have previously discovered, he said.

The researchers have used a variety of techniques to search for the animals, including setting up infrared cameras in the woods to take pictures of the beasts and asking local residents about possible signs of the animals.

"So far, we've obtained pictures of the tiger's prey, such as wild boar, oxen and deer, but we haven't seen any tigers yet," Shi said.

Shi said he expects substantial progress, as 100 infrared cameras will be placed in the reserves to help track the animals after the wet season ends in October.

The survey has focused on the Xishuangbanna and Nangunhe nature reserves, which cover a collective total of 60,000 hectares on the Sino-Myanmar border, he said.

In the mid-1990s, wild Indochinese tigers roamed in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and China's southwest. They are believed to have numbered from 1,050 to 1,750 at that time.

However, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimated that the species has shrunk to 300 cats today. The group said restricted access to border regions has made it difficult to ascertain the exact number of Indochinese tigers there.

The WWF attributed the decline of the species' population to fragmented habitats as a result of rapid development and the hunting of both the tigers and their prey.

Heavy deforestation has destroyed the tropical and subtropical woodlands that the tiger previously inhabited, said Shi.

"The cats are really picky about where they live," he added.

In China, Indochinese tigers have retreated to a handful of nature reserves in Yunnan. Shi said there are believed to be just 11 to 16 of the tigers left in Yunnan, although he admitted that the figure is not backed by sufficient evidence.

"But we're convinced that they do exist in Yunnan," he said.

In May 2007, researchers at Beijing Normal University managed to clearly photograph a live Indochinese tiger in the Xishuangbanna nature reserve, proving that the species still exists within China.

Another Indochinese tiger was discovered in February 2009, when two farmers in Xishuangbanna killed and served the tiger as food to local villagers. The poachers and villagers received jail terms.

The incident aroused speculation that China's last Indochinese tiger had been killed.

However, two years later, researchers found footprints and scratch marks believed to have been left by the cats in Xishuangbannan. Some local residents also claimed to have seen the animals.

The new findings, along with the local government's efforts to ban poaching, have rekindled the hope that the Indochinese tiger still roams in China, Shi said.

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