Chinese lunar Year of the Tiger marks a time some conservationists fear will lead to a spike in demand for the endangered animal’s body parts.
“Just 1,411 left. You can make a difference,” is the message being broadcast on everything from TV adverts, Facebook and YouTube, in what organisers say is India’s biggest ever campaign to conserve the dwindling numbers of its national animal.
Since January, the environmental group WWF India has spearheaded a public awareness campaign, led by the Indian cricket and football captains, which has received close to 100,000 pledges of support on its website.
Poaching and loss of habitat have caused tiger numbers to plunge from around 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century in India, a country with patchy environmental awareness and uneven local governance needed for an effective crackdown on poachers.
Conservation has not hitherto been seen as a big vote winner in India, where hundreds of millions live below the poverty line.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Diwakar Sharma, Associate Director of the Species Conservation Programme at WWF India, told Reuters.
“I hope some of this could be transferred into votes, and politicians realise that the public now wants tiger conservation across India, and the tiger conservation gets more focus throughout India.”
India is a key player in efforts to boost the global tiger population, which numbers just a few thousand and some wildlife experts say could be extinct in 20 years.
“All these things have been tried before,” Belinda Wright, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said of the multimedia campaign. “I think the difference with this particular campaign is that it has brought all the elements together … the coverage has been fantastic.”
“They’re not telling anybody anything new. But what they’re doing is creating a constituency which will then create political will,” she added.
India’s Environment Minister said at the end of last year that Indian tigers were in a “very, very precarious” state and could be wiped out in nearly half the country’s tiger reserves.
Conservationists say the trade in skin and bones is booming to countries such as China, which has banned the use of tiger parts in medicine but where everything from fur to whiskers to eyeballs to bones, are still used.
WWF’s Sharma said the campaign was timely ahead of China’s Year of the Tiger, which begins on February 14 and which India fears will spur poachers and smugglers operating in its forests to capitalise on increased demand for tiger parts during the lunar new year.
Tiger skins sell as rugs and cloaks on the black market, and can fetch up to US$20,000 in countries like China.
New Delhi has been a vocal critic of the Chinese use of tiger parts in medicine, and wants its neighbour to phase out tiger farms it says violate international agreements.