China has been observing a sharp dwindling in its wild tiger population, with fewer than 50 now believed to remain in the country, conservationists said Monday, days before the Chinese lunar new year of the Tiger, which starts Sunday.
About 15 Bengal tigers live in Tibet, 10 Indochinese tigers are in southwestern Yunnan Province, and around 20 Siberian tigers are in the northeast, Xie Yan, director of the China program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said Monday.
The figures, however, are based on data from 2000.
Accurate figures are not available for the global tiger population, but the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 3,200 tigers, compared with about 20,000 in the 1980s and 100,000 a century ago, are still living across 12 Asian countries and in Russia.
Reasons for the speedy disappearance of the wild tiger in the country vary. But the deteriorating environment in the animal's habitats due to deforestation caused by the timber industry, residential use and infrastructure construction, are the most-blamed causes.
In the meantime, the decline in the public's favor for wild tiger protection became notable due to a lack of guaranteed compensation for villagers whose livestock were attacked by tigers.
The South China Tiger might already be extinct, Xie said, adding, "The number of wild tigers left in China is very depressing. … The populations in Tibet and in the south are still dropping."
He Yong, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), admitted that the chances of the revival or expansion of the population of Bengal tigers in Tibet were slim, as they live in a rather enclosed environment.
"It is more hopeful to revive the tiger population in the northeast and southwest," He said.
Xie said she'd pin her hopes on the country's northeast, which borders Russia, where hundreds of Siberian tigers live in the wild.
The northeast tiger is now stable, and may be increasing a little, but the number is still very small," she added.
"But last year was the first year I've felt a lot of confidence in the support of the central government, the State Forestry Administration and local governments," Xie added.
"We see improvements in the management of nature reserves, we see the understanding of local communities, so I hope the tiger year will be the turning point for tiger conservation in China," she said.
The Hunchun Nature Reserve opened in 2001 in Jilin, becoming the country's first such habitat for Siberian tigers. In 2006, Jilin introduced regional regulations stipulating compensation for people whose livestock were attacked by wild tigers, an official effort to ease tensions between humans and tigers amid increasing competition over living space and resources.
Poaching in order to procure the highly demanded skins and bones of tigers was also a major factor for the shrinkage in the number of wild tigers. China has banned the use of tiger parts in medicine, but everything from the fur and whiskers to eyeballs and bones are feared still sought.
The black-market price for a tiger is as high as $80,000, according to He of the IFAW.
"Once the trend of mass consumption is stimulated, it will be very dangerous for the wild tigers, as the cost of killing tigers is much lower than raising them," He said.
The State Forestry Bureau vowed last month to strengthen the protection of wild tigers and severely crack down on the illicit smuggling of and trade in tiger parts.
The Indochinese tiger is also on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 left in the forests of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, reports say.
Siberian tigers are far more numerous just across the border in Russia, where around 500 still live in an area with a lighter human presence.
China last month pledged to double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022 and called for the protection of habitats to save the animals from extinction.
More tigers are now living in zoos or breeding centers. The Siberian Tiger Park in Heilongjiang Province, for example, has raised more than 900 of the felines.
The WWF says the tiger faces extinction by 2022.