ANCIENT Chinese scripts, some etched on tortoise shells, first told of the benefits of the tiger in traditional medicinal cures. For at least a millennium, tiger has been the 'diamond of Chinese pharmacopoeia'. 'The reference to tiger bone was written down 1,000 years ago,' said Judy Mills, acting director of TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna In Commerce) Far East. The humerus - the long bone from the front legs - were regarded as the most efficacious medicines, the other bones were secondary. 'But now that tigers are so rare all the bones are used,' she said. Chinese Materia Medica, Bernard E. Read's 1930s encyclopaedia, revealed that Chinese healers held tigers in such thrall that every part of the animal, from its nose to its faeces, was used in traditional Chinese medicine. 'It is the king of the mountain animals,' Read wrote. 'It is shaped like a cat and is the size of a cow. It roars like thunder . . . and comes when the moon is cloudy. 'The tiger has the power of divination.' It is these tales that raised the tiger to its mythical status and etched it into medical folklore, making it that much harder for conservation groups to halt the slaughter of the big cats to feed the lucrative market in tiger parts. Ms Mills believes that this demand could see the demise of the tiger in the 14 states where it ranges in the wild. 'Probably the majority of people using Chinese medicine have stopped using tiger bone, but with only 5,000 tigers left in the world, that is not enough,' she said. 'We are coming to the point where the population is not sustainable.' Even if under one per cent of the Chinese population used tiger bone daily for rheumatism for a year, she said, tigers would last only a year. Current estimates put the tiger population at between 5,080 and 7,400, down from about 100,000 at the turn of the century. The animal has been virtually wiped out in the mainland through poaching and loss of habitat, although small pockets are still believed to survive in remote mountainous areas of southwest and northeast China. Three sub-species, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tigers, have disappeared over the last 50 years, while the remaining eight are under threat as the black market in tiger products continues to lure poachers and criminal gangs into the trade. One of the most threatened is the Siberian or Amur tiger, whose numbers have now dropped to just 150 as a result of poaching in its habitat in the forests of the Russian Far East. However, a 'guardforce' has now been set up to protect them under Operation Amba, or 'Great Sovereign', so named after the Siberian tribal word for the tiger. A trial programme established by the Russian Government, with backing from the Tiger Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), it is the first attempt by conservation groups to try to protect tigers from increasingly powerful poachers, armed with automatic weapons and the backing of corrupt officials. The guardforce will dispatch patrols to poaching hotspots, investigate smuggling operations, and educate villagers and compensate them for farm animals lost to tigers. Made up of 16 people, including a commander, the team is currently based in Vladivostok and Ussirisk; there are also plans to set up another base but these are limited by the availability of funds. Meanwhile, even the Bengal tiger, by far the most populous species with about 3,750 animals in India and another 959 scattered through Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, is under threat. For as numbers decline in old poaching grounds, hunters are training their sights on this fresh source of tiger parts. Recently, the Indian authorities, after years of claiming that their tiger population was safe, conceded that they had a problem. Last year officials made a number of large seizures destined for the Chinese market. 'For centuries, there have been tigers in and around China but when the populations started to diminish, they [the poachers] started going further afield,' Ms Mills explained. 'The buyers of tiger bone didn't really start going to India until the 1980s. Consumer countries are going to the range states as their own tiger populations decrease.' Ms Mills has just completed a comprehensive study on the issue, Killing For A Cure: A Review Of The Worldwide Trade in Tiger Bone, due to be released this week as part of the WWF's series on species in danger. According to the latest statistics, between 1990 and 1993, China exported 2,415 kilograms of raw tiger bone and 27 million medicinal items containing tiger parts. It is not known how much was used in the mainland. Most tiger products - predominantly in the form of plasters infused with powdered bone - were, and to some degree still are, shipped through Hong Kong to markets overseas. Contrary to popular belief, however, the efficacy of tiger products, for example, the use of tiger penis for improving virility, is largely groundless. 'There have been no clinical trials on any part of a tiger,' Ms Mills said. 'But to devotees of Chinese medicine, the test of time is far more important than Western medicine, which has been around for only a few hundred years.' Some animal traders are beginning to hit back. Earlier in May, Taipei breeders brought a caged tiger, one of 128 bred in captivity in Taiwan, to a demonstration at a US representative office to protest against American pressure to curb their trade. In an unprecedented measure, US President Bill Clinton had ordered in April selective sanctions against Taiwan for trafficking in parts from endangered species, specifically tigers and rhinoceroses. The rally of 40 Taiwanese breeders followed the conviction earlier in May of a breeder, who was sentenced to five months' jail for raising 4,000 masked palm civets and selling them for between NT$2,000 and NT$3,000 (HK$580 to HK$870). Ms Mills, who has visited Beijing to discuss the issue of endangered species with senior government officials, said the Chinese regarded the Western approach to the matter as high-handed. 'They call it environmental imperialism in dictating to the Chinese what they can and can't use,' she said. 'They see it as a threat to their culture in wanting to take tigers from their pharmacopoeia. Medical choices are almost as sacrosanct as religious choices. 'It is a battle of cultures and the tiger is caught in the middle. It is almost an icon of the schism between East and West.' Ms Mills is sensitive to the feelings of the Chinese and is lobbying to save the tiger through a multi-pronged approach. These include: A programme to educate poachers and to offer them another way to make a living. Better domestic and international laws to regulate the trade in tiger parts. Tougher law enforcement. A guardforce to protect the tiger in the 14 range states, similar to Operation Amba in Russia. SHE said TRAFFIC, which was part of the WWF, was trying to establish a dialogue between the users and the conservationists in the West to buy time for the tiger while the other measures took hold. But an American consultant for the Operation Amba project noted that with prices of a whole tiger running at between US$30,000 and US$50,000 (between HK$231,600 and HK$386,000), compared with park rangers' wages of US$50 a month, the odds were against the tiger. 'Unregulated and often illegal trade with other countries, spiralling inflation, corruption and government austerity measures have contributed to a situation in which poachers and wildlife traders can outpace park rangers and policemen,' he said. 'Commercial poachers can make enough money from their illegal hunting to buy Land Cruisers, vehicles that are very good in the snow, and which enable them to run circles around government cars.' The consultant said the poachers also tracked the tigers from helicopters and trucks using 'military techniques'. 'I saw five complete sets of skeletons of tiger that had been shot in the head, indicating they were shot using optic sights while flying at low altitude,' he said. In a recent trip to the Russian Far East, the agent saw rangers catch four groups of poachers in 12 days. Chinese poachers now frequently cross the border on poaching runs, he said, but the cutbacks in the Russian military services meant that few resources would be devoted to stopping them. And unless governments around the world find the will to save the tiger, the magnificent beast that burns so brightly in the forest may soon have its light extinguished for ever.