There are few more majestic and powerful creatures roaming the Earth today than the tiger. Fearless, quiet and mostly solitary, the tiger (Panthera tigris) faces some very real threats, and most -- if not all of them -- are directly or indirectly tied to man. With only an estimated 3,200-3,900 tigers left in the wild (estimates vary), it's more critical than ever that those who care about the survival of this regal, awe-inspiring wild cat take immediate and sustained action.
Loss of Habitat
Tigers roam tropical rainforests, evergreen and temperate forests, mangrove swamps, grasslands and savannas throughout Asia. They hunt by night, relying more on sight -- which is exceptional -- and sound, than on smell to stalk their prey. A typical "dinner" will consist of 40-60 lbs. of meat per tiger.
Unfortunately, the tiger's habitat is shrinking, and there are lots of reasons ...
Climate change causes rising sea levels, which erodes coastal habitat and makes fresh water sources brackish and unfit for consumption by tigers. This forces them to move further inland, closer to human habitations.
Then there are the people. Forests are increasingly cleared for agriculture and/or human habitation. Human population growth on lands that historically supported tigers causes problems on a number of levels. Their prey moves away, and there is an increased threat of human/tiger conflict due to competition for available resources. Retaliatory killings (spearings, shootings, poisonings) occur when tigers get too close to populated areas or injure or kill someone.
Obviously, as the tiger's habitat -- grasses, fresh water, animals to hunt, etc. -- disappear, so do the tigers.
Believe it or not, there is still a demand for tiger "parts" and pelts on the black market. Big game hunter "trophies", exotic status symbols, and their value as a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine keeps the illegal -- and extremely lucrative -- trade going strong. Hunting tigers, of course, is illegal in India, but that doesn't stop well-armed, well-organized gangs from continuing to hunt tigers -- right to the edge of extinction.
Here's another shocking fact. In parts of Asia, humans have developed a taste for tiger meat! In 2007, officials found two tigers in a woman's freezer in Hanoi. She also had tiger bones boiling in pots outside, distilling the ingredients for traditional medicines she planned to market. The same year, two ITN (Independent Television News) reporters were served tiger meat in a village in China. (DNA testing showed that the meat actually was from a tiger.)
And between 2000 and 2014, TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade monitoring organization) seized more than 1,590 tiger "parts" from those involved in the illegal poaching and marketing of the big cat.
An Endangered Species
Tiger populations have been on the decline for nearly a century. Originally, there were nine subspecies (Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, Siberian, South China, and Sumatran) on the Planet. Today, there are only six. Of the six tiger subspecies, four are considered endangered by the ICUN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature); the other two are considered "critically endangered".
In April of 2016, Scientific American reported that wild tiger populations are increasing for the first time in a 100 years. They credit the hopeful news to the efforts of conservationists and enhanced protections, which means that there is a bit of good news for the wild tiger. However, it also means that conservation groups and lawmakers need to double down on their efforts, since Cambodia announced earlier in the same year that they believe that its tiger population is now zero. Officials at the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tigers announced that their estimate of tigers living in the wild had been revised up to 3,890, a modest but appreciable gain in population. (This represents an increase of about 790 tigers from their last estimate published in 2010, which was 3,200.)
We owe a debt of gratitude to the countries who've been doing the most on behalf of their wild tiger populations -- Russia, India, Nepal and Bhutan, according to Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She says that the news is reason for "cautious" optimism about the cause.
Why not be outright optimistic? Because these are just statistics that don't take into account the still serious poaching/illegal trade problem, or the fragmentation of tiger populations, especially in Southeast Asia. When tiger populations become fragmented, inbreeding can result, a phenomenon which further undermines the tigers' ability to thrive and survive. As Rachel Nuwer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine notes, "A group of tigers separated from their kin by miles of roads, crop fields and other human developments might as well be living on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. Cut off from their neighbors, that population of animals will no longer mix with others. If the isolated group is small, this can lead to something called a genetic bottleneck, or a reduced amount of genetic variability." This problem is being addressed through the creation of forest "corridors" connecting tiger reserves, through which the tigers can travel to reconnect with one another.
Groups like WWF are increasing their focus on the demand side of the poaching equation, because without the high demand -- much of which comes from China -- poaching these magnificent creatures would not be worthwhile.
The countries who participated in the 2010 Global Tiger Summit all pledged to double their countries' tiger populations by the year 2022, which at this point seems a bit too optimistic unless things change a good deal more quickly than they have been since 2010.
There are no quick fixes, and constant vigilance is required to continue to make progress.
Imagining a World Without Tigers
Most of us, when we think of it, would be devastated to see the wild tiger disappear completely from the face of the Earth. We'd like future generations to know that the tiger is there, living its life free and wild, just as nature intended. Yet, according to the WWF, over 95% of the world's tiger population has vanished over the past century. Think about that for a moment. Only 5% of the original wild tiger population spread over 13 countries remains!
Now, more than ever, we all need to be aware of the problem faced by wild tigers, dig into our pockets when we can to support groups like the WWF and others, and hope that man can find a way to undo the damage he's done and restore the tiger population to viable levels, because it's truly hard to imagine a world without tigers!