When William Blake wrote his famous Tyger poem in 1794, there were thousands of tigers all over Asia and far eastern Russia. Today, of all the big cat species, it’s the tiger that is the most threatened. This iconic species is still burning bright, but only just.
There are 10 recognised tiger subspecies, but only six survive today. The Trinil tiger died out 50,000 years ago, while Bali tigers around during Blake’s time went extinct by the 1930s. Until the 1970s there were Caspian and Java tigers too. Tiger hunting was a popular sport across the British Empire in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. Elsewhere across the tiger’s range, the animal was persecuted by humans as a pest and a threat to livestock. Tiger hunting has since been banned in Asia, but new threats to the animal’s survival have emerged.
Tiger hunting was a popular sport across the British Empire in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. Elsewhere across the tiger’s range, the animal was persecuted by humans as a pest and a threat to livestock
Tigers are solitary, forest dwelling animals that can eat up to 40 kilograms (six stone) in a single meal. They need large territories, lots of forest and an abundance of prey: usually large deer, antelopes and buffalo. However, Asia has rapidly growing economies in need of timber, land to plant crops, dams, roads and living space. Clearing large areas of forest has pushed tigers into small isolated pockets. Here they are more prone to inbreeding, which weakens the genetic pool.
Isolated tigers are also easier targets for poachers. Today’s poachers aren’t looking for a trophy though; they’re after a pay out from black market profiteers who sell tiger body parts, in China and other eastern countries. According to traditional Chinese medicine, tiger bones and body parts can cure ailments, and make the body strong and virile. It has been illegal to sell tiger parts in China since 1993, but this hasn’t deterred these criminals.
Asia has rapidly growing economies in need of timber, land to plant crops, dams, roads and living space. Clearing large areas of forest has pushed tigers into small isolated pockets. Here they are more prone to inbreeding, which weakens the genetic pool.
Eye of the tiger
In all the natural world, only the elephant, the lion and the eagle rival the tiger for sheer magnificence. The tiger is the national animal of India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea. It appears on the Chinese zodiac, symbolises anger for Buddhists and is associated with the Gods in Hinduism. In Western literature, tigers burn bright, bounce around like springs and stalk a man cub through the jungle. Just imagine a world where the only place you’d ever see a real tiger is in a zoo. There are already more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild – less than 3,200, compared to 100 years ago when there were 100,000. In the USA alone, there are 5,000 privately owned tigers. There was a time when this magnificent animal lived across the whole of southern Asia from Turkey in the west, to Russia in the east. Today, tigers are found in only seven per cent of their historical range. In 2010, all the countries where tiger’s still live pledged to double tiger numbers by 2020. However, in August 2015, an IUCN report claimed that tiger habitat had decreased by 41 per cent in the last 17 years. The report predicted a similar trend for the next 20-30 years, if current trends continue.
Save the tiger
Dr. John Goodrich is Senior Tiger Program Director for Panthera. The global wild cat conservation organisation helps local authorities in Asia protect tigers and fight wildlife poachers. Panthera works to protect and secure key tiger populations, and ensure connectivity between sites so that tigers can live long into the future.
What do you hope to achieve for tigers, in Asia?
The aim is to increase tiger numbers by 50 per cent in key sites throughout Asia over a 10 year period. This strategy is being tested in field sites in India, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Malaysia and Indonesia, areas where there is a high potential to increase numbers of tigers and prey. We’re focussing on the mitigation and elimination of human threats, as well as monitoring of tiger and prey populations. Tiger populations grow slowly, though, because the animal reproduces slowly. We have to check this every two to four years, but it will be three to five years before we see an increase.
Can poachers be stopped?
It’s tricky, as neither us, nor the local authorities can be sure who the poachers are, or where they are, at any one time. We work with local law enforcement who will go in, patrol an area, and check for poachers and snares. This is more of a deterrent to poachers, though. People know these patrols are out there, police, rangers and in Nepal, the military. If poachers go out, they know there’s a chance, however small, that they’ll run into a patrol. A more effective way of actually catching the poachers is through the use of local intelligence networks. Informants let us know who the poachers and buyers are. Then we can send undercover officers in to help catch them in the act of poaching or buying.
Can technology help fight the poachers?
Absolutely. We already have cameras in the tiger’s habitat to monitor the animals. We can fit software that enables the camera to also identify any humans that pass by. The software will then send a signal to the head of a patrol team, who can send out a response unit immediately. Infra-red technology can help patrols find poachers hiding in the dense jungle at night. Metal detectors surrounding a protected area will sound an alarm, when someone walks in carrying a knife, or a gun, or snares. Flying drones with cameras that are used on the African plains are less useful as the dense undergrowth blocks their view of what’s happening on the ground.
What is a tiger corridor?
An area of land that connects two or more protected tiger territories. An area where there is still some level of protection for the animal, so tigers can pass through without too much trouble, or even live there. This enables tigers from different areas to mix and interbreed and prevents small populations suffering from too much interbreeding which weakens the genetic pool and threatens the long term survival of those animals. It’s not a corridor, literally, though, meaning a narrow piece of land that animals walk along to get from one place to another. The areas can be 50 to 100 kilometres (31 -62 miles) wide.
What can ordinary people do to help?
Donate! Every little helps. Lobby your government to support action and legislation against the illegal wildlife trade. Poaching is worse now than it’s ever been, so go on social forums and protest. This is socially meaningful and can have an impact. The movement against people wearing fur was organised in the main, by people and groups. There was never any legislation, but such a stigma became attached to wearing fur that the markets for fur products dried up.
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