As China prepares to usher in the Year of the Tiger next week, a massive publicity drive has begun in neighbouring India, where the big cat is the national animal, to save it from extinction.
Conservation group WWF-India has enlisted the support of sports stars and celebrities to raise awareness of the threat, citing government estimates that there are just more than 1,400 tigers left in the wild.
The campaign, fronted by India cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and top footballer Bhaichung Bhutia, was launched at the end of January and has so far seen more than 75,000 people pledge their support on www.saveourtigers.com.
"Stripey", a cute tiger cub who features in the print, online and television advertisements, also has more than 70,000 fans on the internet social networking site Facebook and more than 2,500 followers on micro-blogging site Twitter.
"Just 1,411 left. You can make a difference," the ad says, urging people to lobby politicians to do more to protect the animal, which once roamed freely across India and the Subcontinent.
Diwakar Sharma, Associate Director for Species Conservation at WWF-India, said they had been delighted with the response which they hoped would push the issue up the political agenda.
"Public opinion is a must for this," he told AFP. "Public-private partnership can change things... What we can do is try to influence this public opinion."
Feared and worshipped in equal measure, the tiger ?– one of the world's largest predators – holds a special place for Indians and has become an icon of the country's cultural and natural heritage.
But despite conservation efforts over a number of years, Sharma said the situation was now "critical" and conservationists cannot do the work alone.
WWF-India has been working since 1973 to protect tigers, leading to the creation of special reserves and protected areas in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The global wild tiger population is thought to be at an all-time low of 3,200, down from about 20,000 in the 1980s and 100,000 a century ago. At the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India.
As elsewhere across Southeast Asia, tiger numbers are threatened by population growth, with a loss of natural habitat to agriculture and available prey leading them to encroach on human settlements in search of food.
Hunting for sport – now banned worldwide but once seen as a status symbol, particularly during British colonial times – and poaching, particularly for traditional Chinese medicine, have had devastating effects on the numbers.
A British-based organisation, the Environmental Investigation Agency, said last year China – which is believed to have fewer than 50 wild tigers – was turning a blind eye to the lucrative illegal trade in tiger parts and pelts. Many of the body parts, such as claws and bones, used for their supposed medicinal properties and as aphrodisiacs, are smuggled to China from India via Nepal.
New Delhi recently asked Beijing for its help to control trafficking but no official agreement was reached.
Poachers killed 32 tigers last year and three already this year, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
There have also been criticisms that government initiatives to crack down on poaching and wildlife crime are failing, due to a bloated bureaucracy and a lack of awareness.
Forestry officials say Maoist rebels, active in seven of India's 38 tiger reserves, are also hindering conservation efforts.
"State governments are certainly not fully aware of [the situation]," said Sharma. "The Indian federal structure allows states to be independent from central government. However, policies are not implemented.
"The environment is for all of our well-being, not only for tigers.
"We know that wherever tigers have gone, the forests are totally degraded with an effect on air and water quality." (AFP)
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