Save the Wild Tigers

A young tiger stares at visitors to the Walter Zoo in Gossau, Canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland

It’s a little-known fact that many more tigers live in private captivity in the U.S. than in the wild. As I wrote in my article, Far From the Forests of the Night, published in the February 2008 issue of Natural History magazine, between 7,000 and 15,000 tigers are held in private roadside zoos, circuses, sanctuaries, farms, and backyards in the U.S. Fewer than 3,500 of the felines live in the wild, mostly in small pockets in India, Sumatra and the Russian Far East.

The situation is so dire, in fact, that delegates to the Tiger Summit, to be hosted in November 2010 by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Russia, are being asked to commit to measures to “prevent the unthinkable: extinction of the world’s last wild tiger populations.”

Hope springs eternal, as my mother likes to say: as a last-ditch measure, an international group of wildlife biologists from Wildlife Conservation Societies around the world are proposing what they call the “six percent solution”: protect tigers living in 42 “source sites” across Asia that still contain breeding populations of tigers.

I have a keen interest in this issue ever since I visited the Carnivore Preservation Trust (now known as Carolina Tiger Rescue) a sanctuary nestled on a remote country road in Pittsboro, North Carolina. The sanctuary is home to 12 tigers, some of them rescued from abandonment on roadsides or, in one case, chained to a tree. I was startled to learn that it is perfectly legal for a private individual to own a tiger – no license required – in nine U.S. states, including Idaho, Ohio, Alabama and North Carolina. (An additional thirteen states require private owners to obtain a permit to keep a wild animal.)

Advocates for private ownership argue that they are protecting these magnificent carnivores from extinction in the wild, where they are often prey to poachers. (Ground-up tiger parts – mixed into bogus aphrodisiacs – can command high prices: just 10 grams of tiger bones now sell for $200 in the international underground market, according to the Times of India.)

Conservationists, by contrast, claim that captive tigers are so inbred that they’ve lost genetic tools that could help them survive in the wild: resistance to certain kinds of disease or the ability to know how to hunt and kill.

Their solution, described in the September 2010 issue of PLoS Biology is to focus tiger conservation efforts – and money – on 42 wild tiger “clusters”: 18 in India, eight in Sumatra, six in the Russian Far East, with others in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. The cost of protecting and monitoring tigers effectively at all 42 sites is estimated at $82 million per year, of which half is already committed by regional governments and international donors.

Yet many of these sites already have declining tiger populations: only five of them, all in India, “maintain tiger populations close to 80 percent of their estimated carrying capacity,” says lead author Joe Walston of the New York Wildlife Conservation Society. “Recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70 percent increase in the world’s tiger population.”

Personally, I’m stunned that the world could allow wild tiger populations to sink so low. We revere these animals and mythologize them: according to the Naga of northeast India, an ancient and wondrous scaly pangolin allowed the mother of the first spirit, the first human and the first tiger to emerge through his deep burrow onto the young earth. We feature tigers in childrens’ stories and stick them on the back of cereal boxes. Isn’t it about time we invested the necessary money to prevent these awe-inspiring beasts from going extinct?

Image courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

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Categorized in: Eco, Nature