Popularity of tigers is rivaled by few other species. While relatively few humans have ever seen tigers in their natural habitats, tigers have a visible presence in our culture. Whether it's Tigger cavorting with Winnie the Pooh or Tony the Tiger hawking cereal, many children are exposed to tigers before they can walk or talk. Tigers are mascots of our sports teams, and a Tiger prowls many of the world's golf courses in pursuit of birdies and eagles - Tiger Woods, that is.
Tigers are also found locked up in many of the world's zoos, forced to perform unnatural acts in circus shows and are all too often privately owned pets. It's no wonder that tigers are frequently ranked as the most popular species on the planet.
Unfortunately, the tiger's popularity has not translated to the species' protection in the wild, where they exist on the precipice of extinction. Historically, there were at least nine subspecies of tigers whose range encompassed habitat in the Russian Far East, Eastern and Southern China, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, including the Indus River Valley in Pakistan. The Bali, Caspian and Javan tiger subspecies have all gone extinct in the past 50 years, while the remaining subspecies barely cling to existence.
The South China tiger is nearly gone with an estimated 20 to 30 living in the wild from a population that only 40 years ago may have been as large as 4,000. Wild Amur or Siberian tiger, Malayan and Sumatran tiger populations are estimated to consist of only 400 to 500 animals each, while the Bengal and Indo-Chinese tiger respectively number less than 2,000 and about 1,000.
In total, scientists estimate that only some 4,000 tigers exist in the wild—a far cry from the 100,000 tigers believed to roam the lush forests of Asia at the turn of the 20th century. India is considered the remaining stronghold for the species, yet recent comprehensive population censuses suggest that the population consists of only 1,400 animals, down from an admittedly imprecise estimate of 3,600 in 2002. The world's remaining wild tigers persist under constant threats from poaching, habitat degradation and loss and increasing conflicts with a burgeoning human population.
Despite the efforts of dedicated game wardens, poachers continue to kill tigers at an alarming rate to feed the insatiable black market for tiger pelts and parts. Tiger pelts are usually sold whole to ignorant and uncaring tourists, used to decorate homes or used as bribes to secure promotions. Tiger parts, including the eyes, bones, reproductive organs and claws are in demand as ingredients for concoctions used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Though empirical scientific proof is lacking, some adherents of TCM cling to the belief that consuming parts of the tiger will improve their vigor, cure disease and make them more virile. Tiger penis is believed to cure impotence; tiger bones are used to make tiger wine, which purportedly strengthens muscles, tendons and bones and treats pain and inflammation. Though there is any number of modern and animal-free traditional medicines available to treat such ailments, some refuse to consider alternatives to tiger parts out of tradition, ignorance or outright callousness for how their choices will impact wild tiger populations.
Battery cages like these house farmed tigers in a prison-like existence until they are slaughtered for their parts to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
While many TCM practitioners refuse to use imperiled wildlife parts in their products, there remains a sufficient demand for wild tiger parts to drive the illegal killing and trade. The severity of tiger poaching is alarming: In only a handful of years, poachers have eliminated or decimated tiger populations in Sariska, Namdapha and Panna tiger reserves in India. These reserves used to be touted as a model for tiger conservation by India's government, but a loss of political will and a reduction in enforcement efforts provided poachers with the opportunity they needed to either wipe out or severely reduce tiger numbers in many of India's reserves. Fortunately, as a result of enhanced protection efforts, tiger populations have rebounded in India's Ranthambore tiger reserve, where the tiger population had previously been devastated by poachers.
In the last decade, tiger habitat has plummeted by 40 percent as a result of mushrooming human populations, the expansion of industry and exploitative practices.
These black market tiger pelts were seized by the Nepalese army in September 2005.
These are just a fraction of known tiger poaching cases. All too frequently, poachers driven by the potential lucrative reward will kill, butcher and sell their victims with little fear of apprehension. In many cases, tiger poaching is a product of insufficient patrols, a lack of resources or a failure of the local or national government to demonstrate the political will to save this iconic species. The lack of severe judicial penalties for those caught and convicted of killing tigers is another fundamental problem enabling tiger poaching to continue.
TIGERS BELONG IN THE WILD, NOT ON FARMS
Some have suggested that the mass production of tigers in captivity will save wild tigers by providing a ready supply of tiger parts to satisfy demand for tiger skins, penises, bones and other parts. Tiger farms are much like livestock factory farms, and are most prevalent in China, where over 5,000 tigers are estimated to be warehoused. Most are raised in miserable conditions, with several tigers confined in tiny cages with no effort made to meet their physical or psychological needs. Others are put on display in larger pens, entertaining throngs of tourists who squeal in delight or horror as the tigers torture live prey like chickens, goats and calves through their incapability to achieve a kill.
Though some contend that farmed tigers could be used to reestablish wild populations, nearly all experts disagree, citing genetic and disease concerns associated with reintroducing farmed tigers into the wild. Furthermore, most agree that it would be exceedingly difficult to train farmed tigers how to efficiently kill live prey, be cautious of humans and otherwise successfully survive in the wild.
Tiger farm owners, who stand to profit handsomely, are pressuring the Chinese government to reverse its 1993 ban on the sale or trade in tiger body parts. Despite a recent directive by member nations of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) recommending China retain the ban, the jury remains out on what China will do. Most consider the ban to have been of critical importance in helping in the recovery of Russia's tiger population, while ensuring the persistence of other tiger populations.
While some argue that flooding the market with parts from farmed tigers will reduce the demand for wild tiger parts, most experts assert that legalizing the trade will increase poaching of wild tigers and push the species close to extinction. These experts report that the arguments made by proponents of tiger farms fail to account for the preference of wild tiger parts over parts from farmed tigers. There is also a great disparity in the cost of raising a captive tiger to adulthood, which is several thousand dollars, versus killing a wild tiger, which costs only as much as a bullet, trap, snare or poison.
Tiger poaching, while severe, is hardly the only threat to the species. Habitat degradation and loss is adding to its demise. Today, according to a comprehensive report on the conservation status of wild tigers commissioned by the Save the Tiger Fund, wild tigers only occupy 7 percent of their historic range. Moreover, in the past decade, tiger range use has declined by 40 percent due to expanding human populations, logging, mining, infrastructure developments (e.g., roads and dams) and other exploitative practices. On the Indian subcontinent, only 11 percent of original tiger habitat remains. Some of the development projects that have harmed tiger populations and their habitat were and may continue to be funded by international aid and development organizations like the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility.
Tigers are poached or farmed for the use of their various parts in the mystical practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Practitioners believe the parts have curative effects on disease, ailments, impotence and the like.
Considering India's growing prosperity and its burgeoning human population, which is predicted to increase by 620 million people by 2050, impact to the country's remaining natural areas is likely to escalate. Without habitat of sufficient size, adequate tiger prey and protection from high-density human populations and extractive industries like logging and mining, wild tigers are doomed.
FORECASTING THE FUTURE
Is there hope for wild tigers? Is it possible that future generations will be awestruck by the experience of observing a wild tiger in its natural habitat, instead of having to settle for stuffed tigers on display in natural history museums?
Yes, it's possible.
Considerable efforts are being made by governments, conservation organizations and scientists to augment and expand protections for wild tigers and their habitats. The government of India, for example, has recently initiated a new campaign in an attempt to restore its beleaguered tiger populations. It is increasing enforcement efforts within tiger reserves and has begun to capture and relocate tigers from relatively healthy and viable populations to start new populations in previously occupied reserves decimated by poachers. Law enforcement efforts to combat tiger poaching are being improved and expanded both nationally and regionally, increasing ability to investigate, pursue, apprehend and prosecute poachers and criminal syndicates involved in the illegal cross-border tiger trade.
But other efforts are essential if wild tigers are to survive. China must begin to phase out tiger farms and not rescind its ban on the tiger parts trade. Penalties for those convicted of illegally killing or trading in tigers or destroying tiger habitat must be stiffened to act as a deterrent against future crimes. Illegal logging and other extractive industries satiate the domestic and international demand for raw materials, but are responsible for the rampant destruction of tiger habitat. Some of the raw materials and the products manufactured from such materials are shipped throughout the world for sale, including in the United States, making us all unwitting participants in the destruction of tiger habitat and, by extension, in tiger extinction. Law enforcement efforts must be substantially expanded to root out and prosecute all involved in the illegal trade in tigers, from local poachers to middlemen to buyers, from criminal syndicates to corrupt officials to consumers of tiger parts and products. Governments must set aside and protect additional core tiger habitat containing abundant tiger prey, including buffer zones and corridors. Finally, education must be underscored to increase the public's support for tiger conservation and to reduce demand for tiger products.
But why save wild tigers?
For one, their value extends far beyond their beauty or cultural significance. Protecting wild tigers means protecting the vast wild places that tigers require to survive. The protection of large expanses of forest habitat in turn provides clean water, clean air and natural flood control to the benefit of local human populations. Furthermore, with their need for extensive and intact habitat, saving wild tigers subsequently protects an array of other species. Wild tigers also provide a reliable source of income through eco-tourism opportunities for those who desire to observe this majestic species in its natural habitat.
Why save wild tigers? Because we must - for the tiger, for ourselves, and for future generations who should not be relegated to seeing tigers only in cages or on a cereal box.