With the number of wild tigers at an all-time low, a new study warns that unless conservation managers redouble funds and efforts to protect tigers in the few places they can still thrive, we may lose the world’s largest cat.
Siberian tiger photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society
By Liza Gross
Sometime before dawn on August 22, 2009, three killers came for Sheila. Stealing past the main gate of Sumatra’s Taman Rimba Zoo, the intruders climbed on to the roof of the tiger enclosure, tossed down a slab of poisoned meat, and waited.
Assured that the fearsome Sumatran female could no longer defend herself, they clutched their knives and scrapers and set to work. They sliced through the muscles of her soft belly, severing flesh from bone, and carved up the lifeless cat until just bits of intestines and a few ribs remained.
That poachers would target a captive tiger in a zoo offers a chilling view into the black heart of the illegal wildlife trade and testifies to the rising demand–and escalating price–for a piece of the mighty cat on the black market. Two years ago, tiger skins sold for up to U.S.$16,000. Today, according to data from the black market database Havocscope, a pelt can command as much as $35,000.
Video: Only 350 wild tigers remain in Asia’s Mekong River region, according to a January 2010 report from the conservation nonprofit WWF, which says the loss is being driven by trade in tiger parts.
National Geographic (with WWF footage)
Nearly every part of a tiger–skin, bones, internal organs, eyeballs, claws, whiskers, even blood–can find a buyer on the black market. Where some people prize bone-infused potions for their reputed medicinal or aphrodisiac properties, others collect claws and other remnants as trinkets, talismans, and souvenirs.
The human taste for tiger parts may quickly push the species past the brink of recovery. In this Chinese Year of the Tiger, the number of tigers living in the wild has never been lower. The situation is so dire, say the authors of a new study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, that saving the species requires a radical shift in conservation strategy.
The precipitous decline of the tiger has been largely driven by the demand for tiger body parts for traditional medicines and other products.
Photo by Kent Redford/via Wildlife Conservation Society
Just a little over a century ago, an estimated 100,000 tigers stalked through the forests from Turkey to the Russian Far East. Since the 1930s, three subspecies of Panthera tigris–the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tiger–have vanished.
Beyond the relentless pursuit of poachers, the wide-ranging tiger must cope with ongoing habitat loss, a primary threat to nearly every endangered species on Earth. Since 1900, the species lost close to 95 percent of its numbers and range.
The critically endangered Sumatran tiger, with latest population estimates at 400 and dropping, struggles to survive amidst expanding oil palm and acacia plantations that clear prime tiger habitat in the rich lowland forests.
Agricultural conversion, logging (legal and illegal), and ongoing development in other Asian range states carve up the landscape, leaving fragmented, isolated pockets of forest too small to support tigers and their preferred ungulate prey.
A wild tiger photographed by camera trap in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Indonesia.
Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society
Calculating the number of solitary, wide-ranging carnivores is always difficult, but researchers think just 3,000 to 3,500 wild tigers, including about 1,000 breeding females, remain–that’s a 50 percent decline since 1998, the last Year of the Tiger.
Clearly, argue the study authors, which include leading tiger experts from seven conservation organizations and universities, current management approaches have not reversed the decline of wild tigers. And time is running out.
Thanks in part to the success of tiger reserves set up in India and Nepal in the 1970s, many conservationists turned to protecting the broader landscape and creating habitat corridors to ensure genetically healthy, viable populations. But many scientists began to rethink this approach as increased demand for tiger parts coincided with lax security in the reserves–a situation made painfully clear when reports surfaced in 2004 that a Wildlife Institute of India team could not find a single Bengal tiger in the Sariska reserve, which had 18 tigers just the year before. And poaching in India has continued apace: 32 tigers were killed in 2009, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Protection Society of India, and another 39 so far this year.
With most tigers confined primarily to these small, protected areas, the authors of the new study argue, it’s crucial to protect these sites. In a call to action, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s John Robinson, executive vice president for Conservation and Science, and Joe Walston, director of the WCS’s Asia Program, along with 19 other tiger conservation scientists argue that it’s time to redouble efforts to protect tigers where they live–before it’s too late.
In the study, the authors identified 42 “source sites” throughout Asia, so-called because they contain enough tigers to repopulate the wider landscape. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s last wild tigers, including most of the breeding females, live in these sites, which cover just 6 percent of their current range–a sobering 5 percent of their historic range.
Location of 42 source sites, embedded within the larger tiger conservation landscapes (TCLs), areas that encompass the ecological habitats suitable for tigers. Click on the image to enlarge the map.
This illustration formed part of today’s tiger paper in the journal PLoS Biology
To qualify as a source site, an area must have the potential to maintain over 25 breeding females, lie within an area capable of supporting over 50 breeding females, and already have an established conservation infrastructure and laws mandating protection. The authors found no such sites in China, which harbors one of the most critically threatened population of tigers, with fewer than 20–and provides the biggest market for tiger parts. India, Sumatra, and the Russian Far East have the most source sites, but only five of these sites, all in India, have healthy populations. Still, with the vast majority of tigers living in these areas, the authors argue, their protection is crucial to the recovery and survival of the species.
“We’re especially worried about Russia and India,” says Walston. “They hold the two largest populations of tigers, so any declines in their populations is a significant worry for the species.”
Though long-term strategies–such as restoring the broader landscape, shutting down illegal trade routes and reducing the demand for tiger parts–are important, Walston acknowledges, they’ll be irrelevant if the last source sites aren’t protected. “We’re at such a stage now that if we don’t focus a disproportionate amount of our effort on source sites, all other strategies are bound to fail.”
“This proposal might be the most pragmatic response to the tiger crisis that’s ever been brought to the table,” says former co-director of the Siberian Tiger Project in the Russian Far East Howard Quigley, who was not involved in the study.
Video: Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers, hunt in the harsh climate of the Siberian wilderness where food is scarce.
Last year scientists with the Siberian Tiger Monitoring Program reported a four-year decline in tiger numbers in the Russian Far East, largely due to poaching of the cats and their prey–a decline that paralleled reduced law enforcement. The same thing happened with rhinos, another species sliding into extinction at the hands of poachers. “When conservation efforts were geographically diffuse,” Walston and his coauthors note in the paper, “cost-risk ratio greatly favored the illegal hunter. Only where protection efforts either were focused on small- to medium-sized areas or were well-financed did rhinos persist.”
“In many ways, it’s a sad state of affairs for conservation,” says Quigley, who now focuses on mountain lions and jaguars as head of Panthera‘s Western Hemisphere Felid Programs.
“If we protect tiger cores now, we can begin to think about tiger landscapes, tiger corridors, and intact ecosystems.”
“Our greatest tiger scientists are basically calling for boots and guns on the ground. We used to call for more research and information, so we could build conservation plans,” Quigley explains. “But their comparison to the rhino situation is not unfounded. We might still have rhinos today if we had really protected rhino core populations in the 1960s. We didn’t, and we will likely never have true rhino landscapes again. If we protect tiger cores now, we can begin to think about tiger landscapes, tiger corridors, and intact ecosystems.”
For Walston, it all comes down to protecting tigers and their prey, and giving them the space they need to live and breed. “We’ve just had a tiger in India in the South Western Ghats walk over 100 kilometers across a human-dominated landscape to another source site. Tigers can happily move across large areas to breed in other source sites.” But the effort required to protect tigers is tremendous, he adds, as rising reports of poached tigers clearly demonstrates. “And that effort is impossible to do on a massive scale, especially in human-dominated landscapes.”
Malayan tiger photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society
Not only is protecting source sites pragmatic and efficient, Walston and his colleagues argue, it’s also financially feasible. Protection would cost $82 million a year, they estimate, including increased law enforcement and surveillance to stop poachers, monitor tigers and their prey, and work with local communities. Decades of evidence shows that focusing on these simple interventions allows tigers to recover, Walston says. Range states already underwrite most of these costs.
The rest–$35 million–the authors hope to raise through initiatives that come out of the much-anticipated Tiger Summit, planned for November 20-24 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sponsored by the Global Tiger Initiative, an international alliance dedicated to preventing the extinction of wild tigers, the summit will convene government leaders from 13 range states.
Having all the leaders of countries with tigers in one place offers an unprecedented opportunity to muster the political will to save tigers. When governments have decided that tiger conservation is a genuine priority, and invest the time, effort, and political will to protect tigers and their prey, says Walston, they can reverse the decline. “Eventually, we can build up tiger landscapes from source sites. The more robust the population, the more it’s able to resist poaching and other threats.”
Video: A tiger and two cubs captured by a camera trap on the Indonesian island of Sumatra are the first recorded evidence that the imperiled big cats are breeding in the region, conservationists say. (Video published January, 2010)
National Geographic (with WWF footage)
The pressures on wild tigers, especially the illegal trade in tiger parts, shows no sign of abating. Just last month, airport security caught a woman trying to smuggle a two-month-old tiger cub out of Thailand in her suitcase. And although China passed a law outlawing domestic trade in tiger parts in 1993, the government reconsiders the ban each year. And it’s no secret that the owners of China’s notorious tiger farms–which house an estimated 6,000 tigers that the owners claim teach the public about tiger conservation–hope to reverse that ban so they can sell any stockpiles openly on the domestic market. (International trade in tigers, and other wildlife, is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.) Legalizing trade in farmed tiger parts, conservationists say, will increase demand and ultimately mask the illegal trade in wild tiger parts.
Walston and his colleagues hope to convince summit participants of the wisdom of a protection-based strategy, though he expects to encounter resistance. “Some people think that source sites are not enough in themselves. And we’d be the first to agree,” he says. “But we’re losing these sites. And what is unarguable is that if we lose these source sites, forget the landscape.”
Quigley agrees. “In the end, tigers, and tiger habitat, have a price on them,” he says. “We need a protection strategy, pure and simple, or we will not have tigers in the wild fifty years from now.”
Liza Gross is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area and a staff editor at the open-access biomedical journal PLoS Biology. She writes about wildlife, ecology, conservation, environmental health, and science policy. Her stories have appeared in High Country News, Sierra, Tikkun, PLoS Biology, and Wines & Vines.
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