By Lucy Rock
Criminal gangs are hunting the big cats to sell their organs and bones to the Chinese medicine industry. But an alliance between a western charity and local Nepalis is turning the tables, producing a small but encouraging rise in tiger numbers.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, a war is being waged. Soldiers armed with M16 assault rifles patrol the grasslands and forests while surveillance drones buzz overhead. But their fight is not against another army, it is to save the tiger from extinction – and the enemy is the poacher.
The Observer accompanied a group of soldiers and rangers on a search mission along the Karnali river in Nepal's Bardia National Park. Crocodiles lolled in the shallows, while the screeches of monkeys and birds punctuated the heavy, still air. The pugmarks – the pawprints – of an adult tiger were visible in the mud on the bank. A poacher staking out this spot for a couple of days would have a chance of catching one of the cats, as they often return to familiar watering holes.
It is estimated that there are 3,200 tigers left worldwide – 95% fewer than a century ago – and the booming wildlife trade is the biggest threat to their survival. Increasing affluence in Asia has caused prices for skins and the body parts used in traditional Chinese medicines to soar. International gangs pay local Nepalese handsomely to kill tigers and rhinos. The skin and bones are handed to middlemen who pass easily through the porous border to India, where the major dealers are based. For many in a country where the average income is 150 Nepalese rupees a day (£1.03), rewards of around £5,000 per skin and £1,700 per kilogram of bones outweigh the risks of being caught and jailed for up to 15 years.
Poachers kill tigers using guns fashioned from wood and piping which fire bullets of crushed glass and gunpowder, or by laying down poisoned bait. Diwakar Chapagain, the WWF Nepal's co-ordinator for wildlife trade monitoring, said: "It is hard to know if a tiger has been poached, because nothing is left behind. Each part of the animal has a sale value – eye-balls for drinks, the penis for soup to boost virility, its teeth for jewellery and its bones for good luck charms. Stuffed tiger cubs and rugs made from skins are also seen as status symbols." More....