From 21 to 24 November 2010, the International Forum of Tiger Conservation convened in St. Petersburg, Russia. The reason for holding this "Tiger Summit" was to discuss how the tiger can continue to survive on our planet. This year is also the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar, and I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so I want to talk first about the relationship between the Chinese people and the tiger, and then about practical ways to protect the future of the tiger in China.
China is the cradle of the tiger, and may still be the country with the most species of tigers in the world. Tigers also hold an important position in traditional Chinese culture. But unfortunately, China is also one of the countries where wild tigers are most endangered. There are maybe still four subspecies of tigers in the wild, but each population consists of only around 30 individuals, and China is the biggest consumer of tiger products in the world.
Chinese people venerate tigers, but this has two distinct aspects. On the spiritual side the tiger is the symbol of power, courage and status, so in traditional Chinese idioms, stories, poetry, and painting we find brilliant images of the tiger. But we find nothing but abuse on the material side, with tigers used as raw materials for medicines and trinkets. In traditional Chinese pharmacies, we find tiger bones, testicles and penises. In the parlors of the rich, we find tiger skins displayed as symbols of wealth. And people love tiger fang necklaces so much that anyone who has one is treated as a minor celebrity.
Over the past 50 years, China's population has increased rapidly along with the number of weapons. The result has been the rapid disappearance of tigers from our forests. The North China tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), the Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) and the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) all have relatives abroad and can emigrate as "ecological refugees", but the South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), unfortunately does not have dual nationality, so its fate is extinction in the wild or emasculation of the spirit in captivity. The lucky ones make it to zoos, the less fortunate end up in the circus, but either way the tiger is reduced to a plaything of humans. But absolutely the most unacceptable thing in today's materialistic and money-mad society is that tigers have followed wild bears, crocodiles and foxes into farms, to be raised like pigs and turned into an industry. Fortunately, the law has virtually closed off any access to markets for tiger farms, but the consequence is that when the bosses run out of money they leave the tigers to eat each other when they get hungry. The tiger was once the king of beasts, but today his body is being exterminated and his spirit emasculated.
I feel desperately pessimistic about the future of the tiger, especially in China, I think the wild tiger will become extinct sooner or later and may already have been exterminated. But as a ecologist, I would like to devise some possible ways to preserve the tiger in China.