NEW DELHI – Environmentalists accused India and China in a stinging indictment Wednesday of doing almost nothing to stem the rapid decline of tigers in the wild, saying the big cats will likely vanish completely within a few years without government intervention.
Trade in poached Indian tigers is flourishing across the border in Chinese-controlled Tibet, where organized crime groups sell them for use in traditional medicines, ceremonial clothing and as souvenirs, according to two environmental agencies, which secretly photographed the trade.
Photos shown at a news conference Wednesday showed dozens of tiger and leopard skins openly on sale, while in others, Chinese police officers laughed and posed with people wearing clothing made of tiger skins.
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The groups — the Wildlife Protection Society of India and the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit British-based group — accused the Indian and Chinese governments of failing to stop the trade.
"In China, the police have decided to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of tigers in India," despite tough laws against trading in endangered animals, said Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
She said India has not put together an effective force to combat poaching after 12 years of talking about it.
"It is the politics in India that is killing the tiger, the petty agendas and personal rivalries," she said.
Kalpana Balkhiwala, a spokeswoman for the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, which is responsible for tiger conservation, said the ministry had no comment on the report. Chinese officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Both governments have received copies of the report, Wright said.
Last year, Indian officials were forced to acknowledge that poachers had wiped out every tiger in one of India's premier reserves, and that Indian wildlife officials had long exaggerated the number of tigers across the country.
But despite a loud public and official outcry, Wright said tiger protection has not improved.
The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund estimates there are 3,000 to 5,000 tigers currently left in the world, said Judy Mills, director of the fund's Campaign Against Tiger Trafficking.
However, conservationists believe official estimates of tigers in the wild are grossly exaggerated and that the true figure may be closer to 2,000 — or as little as several hundred.
"We need to start imagining a world without the great predators," Wright said. "It is about to become a reality. I stand before you completely defeated. So little has been done since we exposed this last year. The countries involved — India, China and Nepal — have done so little to curb the slaughter. India will soon have no tigers."
"It's just a handful of years before you have none left."
Trade in endangered species, including the Bengal tiger, is banned worldwide under a U.N. convention. But the high premium attached to tiger skins and the use of other tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicines have created a thriving illegal trade.
Mills said China was considering lifting its ban on the trade of bones from tigers raised on farms for use in medicines.
This will undoubtedly fuel the poaching of wild tigers because the animals are expensive to raise on farms and cheap to kill in the forests of India, she warned. And, there's no way to differentiate between the bones, she said.
"This will hammer the last nails in the coffin of wild tigers," Mills said by telephone from Washington, D.C. "There's no question in my mind."
An expose last year by Wright's group and the Environmental Investigation Agency helped curb the use of tiger skins in Tibetan ceremonial dress, particularly after the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, denounced the practice.
Now, she said, Chinese are buying pelts or body parts as souvenirs. "Chinese businessmen are buying it for home decor," Wright said.
The market will continue to expand unless the governments take a strong stand against the trade, said Debbie Banks, head of Environmental Investigation Agency's tiger campaign.
"The trade is run by highly organized networks who have far too much invested to let a few isolated raids and random seizures deter them," she said in a statement.
During the investigation, researchers even came across a Tibetan ceremonial tent made of 108 tiger skins. Its owners said it was several hundred years old, but it had recently been repaired and several of the skins looked new, said researcher Nitin Desai.
"I looked at it and said: That is the end of the tiger — 108 skins," he said.