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Can a Thousand Breeding Females Stave Off Tiger Extinction in the Wild?

With only 3,500 tigers hanging on in isolated patches of wilderness scattered across 13 Asian countries, the prospects for the survival of the species outside zoos is grim. The Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is convening a summit in St. Petersburg this weekend to discuss and endorse a plan that would double the population...

With only 3,500 tigers hanging on in isolated patches of wilderness scattered across 13 Asian countries, the prospects for the survival of the species outside zoos is grim.

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The Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is convening a summit in St. Petersburg this weekend to discuss and endorse a plan that would double the population of wild tigers over the next 12 years. It is the first gathering of heads of government to discuss the fate of a single species.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is one of the conservation organizations providing technical and scientific assistance to the St. Petersburg summit. The New York-based nonprofit has deep knowledge and experience of conservation and restoration of the big cats. WCS recently unveiled a plan that focuses on protecting the last 1,000 breeding female tigers in 42 “source sites.” The thinking is that if these females can be given the room and opportunity to breed, their offspring will spill over into much more of the range historically populated by tigers.

David Braun interviews WCS President Steve Sanderson about the tiger summit, the WCS strategy that focuses on 42 source sites, and what ordinary people everywhere should be thinking and doing about the conservation of big predators in the wild.

Steve Sanderson President Wildlife Conservation Society photo by Julie Larsen Maher.JPG

Wildlife Conservation Society President Steve Sanderson.

Photo by Julie Larsen Maher 

What is the status of wild tigers and how did it get that way?

Briefly, the status of tigers is one of deep danger. They have declined in number to about 3,000, maybe 3,500 in the wild. They occupy less than 7 percent of their historical range. And only about 1,000 of them are breeding females, which is the most critical part of
the population. So it’s really down to a tiny, tiny number across a tiny fraction of their former range. And this is one of the predominant predators in the world, certainly in Asia.

They got that way basically because of over-hunting. In recent history it’s been sport hunting, but also poaching for commercial reasons and hunting by communities who come into contact with tigers. The hunting and loss of their prey has also been a big deal.

There’s also been a loss of their habitat, although that is something that is not in such dire straits. It’s really a question of more habitat than there are tigers for it, rather than the habitat shrinking faster than the tigers available.

Why should people in say North America be concerned about whether there is more habitat for tigers than tigers for habitat?

We should care about the future of the Earth. That’s a value statement. It’s not an opinion, but really the backdrop to all of human culture. What did the first humans do when they tried to express themselves in art? They drew pictures of wildlife. If you look at the caves of Lascaux and southern Europe in general, there are big cats
and predators … and prey animals.

So it’s deeply embedded in our culture to understand and relate culturally to wildlife. If we abandon that because we are too sophisticated or too modern or gone beyond that, there’s no question that it will impoverish human culture. So that’s a value statement.

The second is that once an animal like that is gone it can’t be retrieved. These are top predators, and has been shown in the ocean and in many ecosystems, including in the United States, when you take the top predator out you suddenly have pest problems and unbalanced ecosystems.

In our part of the country, in New England and the Eastern Seaboard, the removal of wolves and coyotes has resulted in an over-abundance of deer, and those deer are resulting in, I think the New York statistics show, something like U.S.1 billion every year in automobile accidents and crop losses. And they are generating a super-abundance of ticks breeding disease.

So there are a lot of reasons to keeping ecosystems intact, beyond their values, and top predators are key to that.

Why is the Wildlife Conservation Society attending the tiger summit?

We have been acting in concert with the organizers of the summit, the range nations, and also the World Bank and Global Environment Facility, as a technical organization. So we’re behind the science and the conservation management side of the tiger strategy. We’re going to provide our good offices in some of the meetings at the summit that
have to do with moving the agenda forward. The way the summit is organized, there are a number of these workshop-style meetings in which scientific organizations like ours can play an important part.

So we’ve got two purposes: One is to support what is the first summit to save a species, and then to provide what we know and what we do and our good offices on behalf of a successful summit.

WCS video

What is the significance of the summit? Is it likely to be successful?

The world gets together for many things, and saving a single species is not one of them. So this is a unique event. You’ve got one of the great powers in the world and one of the world’s leaders, Prime Minister Putin, hosting a global event in which all of the tiger range countries are attending, along with all of the major stakeholders, including the conservation community. It’s great as a precedent-setter
for conservation.

Whether or not it’s a success is going to be borne out by the summit itself, but I think that in contrast to other recent summits we’ve seen, there’s a fair amount of hope surrounding this one.

Is that in part because of Putin’s personality. He seems to be very results-driven?

He is very results-driven. He is a significant person in international relations. He seems to have an affinity for tigers, so he seems to be personally invested in this. And he and the government of Russia have worked with the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility and the other countries to set up a good meeting. It’s got a strong agenda. They have invited the key people without trying to turn it into a big festival. It seems to be fairly focused.

What are the goals of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s tiger strategy?

It’s a strategy we have worked to develop with the entire community of conservation organizations. It’s called The Six Percent Solution. It takes the last six percent of tiger range, the last thousand breeding females and the 42 places where there are viable populations of tigers and protects them with great focus and energy. This will allow them to become source sites that will generate larger tiger populations that can spill out into adjacent protected areas.

That’s the strategy, and it’s different than taking a look at all potential tiger range and trying to protect all of it, whether or not it has tigers in it currently. If you do that, you diffuse your effort and end up protecting land rather than protecting animals. It’s an important difference in emphasis.

The great part of the strategy–and this is unusual within our community, as it is in international efforts in general–is that everybody who is a principal stakeholder or scientific leader in this area has contributed to and signed off of this strategy. That’s a big deal.

WCS video

There is a price tag attached to the strategy. Do you expect the range-country governments to chip into that?

What is interesting and has not been recognized in public until this strategy was put together is that governments within the range countries are already contributing a substantial amount of money, more than half of what’s required on a yearly basis. The total cost of all these 42 source sites is estimated at U.S.$82 million a year or so. What remains to be funded is $35 million. So $47 million is already being put together by the range states, with a little more by international donors and NGOs.

What we expect to see or hope for is an agreement on a strategy and an implementation plan that would invite the multilateral funders to come in at a higher level. And we also hope to see a more representative spending pattern. A lot of what’s being spent now annually is spent in India. That’s really important, but it isn’t everything across all
these 42 sites. So we’d like to see a better distribution.

We’re already seeing a lot of enthusiasm from private donors to give additional support for tiger conservation.

So the hope is that we’ll get a new blend and additional incremental funding to try to implement this strategy. After all, it’s basically the price of trying to field a major international athlete every year. It’s not huge money by anyone’s standards to save an entire species.

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Wildlife Conservation Society tiger researcher John Goodrich.

Photo courtesy WCS

Can the tigers be saved, in your opinion? Only today we saw a report of another Siberian tiger being poached.

We’ve seen evidence that they can be saved, and some of the evidence comes from the most difficult places. In India, for example, where the density of human population is extremely high and the amount of habitat is limited, we’ve seen tiger numbers really multiply through this source-site strategy and through protecting their prey. So if it
can be done there it can be done elsewhere.

In the Russian Far East, for some years now the number of Siberian tigers, or Amur tigers, has been stabilized by really good, effective, earnest community and government and protected-area management–and it’s an area that’s not very productive, meaning that the tigers need a lot of physical area in order to find enough food to sustain themselves. By contrast in India, you can support a tiger on a tenth of the area than you can in the Russian Far East.

In both of those areas with their own special challenges, we’ve seen good results.

“The situation isn’t desperate if we act.”

I think this is one you have to win every day. When you see a tiger lost in Siberia, especially a reproductive animal, that’s a big loss. A part of this strategy is to try to make sure that there are enough numbers, enough geographic spread and enough genetic diversity so that we can count on tigers in the future.

The situation isn’t desperate if we act.

Tiger mother moves her cubs photo by Michael Nichols .jpg

A tigress in India moves her cubs to protect them from predators. The Wildlife Conservation Society believes that if the remaining 1,000 breeding females can be protected the populations of the world’s wild tigers can rebound.

NGS stock photo by Michael Nichols

What can ordinary people do to help tigers?

In the United States, the U.S. Congress through the legislative process apportions a small but significant amount of money to the multinational species conservation fund. It’s a few million dollars. Tigers are among the identified species that get support from these

There’s a tendency in this country to think that this is a low priority, or foreign aid, or something that just shouldn’t be done by the public realm. But the yield on that is tremendous, so I would encourage people to support public aid for the conservation of tigers in the wild.

People can also voice that by writing to their representatives in Washington, who are on both sides of the aisle–Republicans and Democrats have supported this and understand it–but who are under great pressure to look at what they are spending and why they’re
spending it.

Individually, we also need to be much, much more aware of, and be conscious in our own environment, not just in the tiger countries but in our own environment, about the relationship that we have to natural ecosystems and top predators–for the reasons that I described earlier, the relationship between wolves and coyotes and other predators in the Northeast and runaway deer. Everyone is complaining about the deer, but who was it who shot out the wolves in the first place?

We have to be more intelligent and push ourselves to be educated about how to live with wildlife in a way that’s sustainable.

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Wildlife Conservation Society tiger researcher in the field in Russia.

Photo by John Goodrich, courtesy WCS

More About Tigers From Nat Geo News Watch

Summit to Save Last Wild Tigers Must Do More Than Growl
Tiger range countries meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the International Tiger Conservation Forum hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have been urged by conservation activists to “act decisively now or face a future in which the wild tiger is extinct.”

A Thousand Tigers Dismembered for Skin-and-bones Trade
Parts of at least 1,069 tigers have been seized in tiger range countries over the past decade, according to an analysis of tiger seizures released today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

America’s 5,000 Backyard Tigers a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’
With more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than survive in the wild, the United States needs a centralized federal database to monitor the big cats, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says.

World Tiger Day 2010
Joseph Smith, Tiger Program Director for Panthera, a charity dedicated to restoration and conservation of the world’s 36 species of wild cats, answers questions about the challenges facing tigers.

A Last Stand for Tigers?
With the number of wild tigers at an all-time low, a 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.

China and Russia Declare International Sanctuary for Siberian Tigers
Jilin province of China and neighboring Primorsky province in Russia have agreed to collaborate formally in working towards the first transboundary Amur tiger protected area.

World’s Largest Tiger Reserve Designated in Myanmar
A region the size of the U.S. state of Vermont has been earmarked by Myanmar as a sanctuary for the tiger, one of the most endangered animals on the planet. But can the poaching of the big cats and their prey be stopped?

World Bank Invests in Tiger’s Future
World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick unveiled Vanishing Icons–a new National Geographic exhibition of photographs of tigers, lions, and other big cats–at the bank’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Read more about the plight of tigers and other big cats and what concerned people across the world are doing to help them on the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website.   

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn