BEIJING (Reuters) - China has an estimated 50 or fewer tigers left living in the wild, but efforts to stabilize one population in the bleak northeast are starting to pay off, a conservationist said on Monday.
Tigers once roamed huge swathes of China, right up to the now booming east coast. Their population has collapsed due to habitat destruction on the back of rapid economic development and poaching for tiger products to use in traditional medicine.
About 10 still live in the southwestern province of Yunnan, some 15 in Tibet, and 20 or so in northwestern Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, said Xie Yan, China Country Program Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The South China Tiger is probably already extinct, she told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Tiger, which starts on Sunday.
“The number of wild tigers left in China is very depressing,” Xie said. “We have less than 50 individuals in the wild. The populations in Tibet and in the south are still dropping.
“The northeast tiger is now stable, and maybe increasing a little, but the number is still very small,” she added.
Conservationists say the trade in skin and bones is booming in countries such as China, which has banned the use of tiger parts in medicine but where everything from fur and whiskers to eyeballs and bones are still used.
Skins sell as rugs and cloaks on the black market, fetching up to $20,000 for a single pelt.
Activists say tough laws and occasional well-publicized clampdowns cannot compensate for a crucial problem — the lack of strong and consistent enforcement.
Barely 3,500 tigers are estimated to be roaming wild across 12 Asian countries and Russia, compared with about 100,000 a century ago, conservationists say.
In December, a Yunnan court sentenced a man to 12 years in jail for killing and eating what may have been the last wild Indochinese tiger in China.
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.
Xie said the Tibetan and Yunnan tigers have the bleakest futures, as their populations are both tiny and isolated.
The northeast tigers, though small in number in China, are far more numerous just across the border in Russia, where around 500 still live in an area with a far lighter human presence.
“We think that the best hope for wild tigers in China is in the northeast, because it is connected to the bigger population in Russia,” she added.
“The rest of the populations are too small and not connected,” Xie said of the Yunnan and Tibet tigers.
Editing by Alex Richardson