What is a tiger? The tiger genome has recently been sequenced, but every community that has lived with tigers has had its own fantasies about the animal. Now the real thing is vanishing. Balinese tigers became extinct in the 1930s, Caspians in the 1970s, and Javanese in the 1980s; a few inbred South Chinese tigers stagger on in captivity and Sumatrans are down to around 350. No one knows how few Malayans live in the wild, or how many Indo-Chinese there are in south-east Asia – especially as the Burmese tycoon Htay Myint is now destroying huge swathes of Hugawng Valley, established only in 2001 as the world's largest tiger reserve, in order to plant sugar, tapioca and jatropha for biofuel. All his bulldozers have left standing are the new conservation signboards.
Tiger losses are driven by two things: deforestation for agriculture, especially monocultures, and poaching for Chinese medicine and luxury furs. While exploring tiger habitats between 2001 and 2004, I saw the hand of China throughout Laos, Thailand and Sumatra. In 2010, the Year of Biodiversity, that hand is