Deep in the sweltering mangroves of the Sunderbans, a striking animal pads softly across the jungle floor. Slices of sunlight slide across her orange and black fur as she searches the shady foliage for a wild deer or pig. When she can’t find what she’s looking for, she returns to her cubs hungry and empty-pawed. She can sense that something is wrong, but she doesn’t know that she may be one of the last tigers in the world.
Exactly how many tigers are left? Experts frustrate each other (and the public) with debates over an accurate head count of the world’s remaining tigers. “The truth is, because tigers are so elusive and secretive, they are difficult to study or even count in the wild,” says Dr. Ron Tilson, coordinator for the Species Survival Plan for tigers. However, most estimates fall in the range of 3,500 to 5,000, and tigers fall under the endangered category on the red list compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, or World Conservation Union). As defined by the IUCN, this means that tigers face a high risk of extinction in the wild.
In other words, we know tigers are in trouble, but we can’t figure out exactly how many remain on the globe. Is there any other way to assess the situation? Dr. Ullas Karanth has helped to answer this question. Karanth is India’s director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Technical Director of WCS’s’s “Tigers Forever” Program; he has developed scientific methods of population assessment that are used to monitor big cat populations worldwide. Instead of trying to come up with a catchall estimate, Karanth uses his studies to count tiger densities in specific regions. In his book The Way of the Tiger (2001), Karanth estimates that the area of New York City (about 300 square miles) can support twenty-five tigers in South Asia. In a more recent scientific paper co-published by Karanth in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2004), photographic and transect sampling were used to estimate tiger densities throughout India. These estimates suggest that anywhere from one to sixteen tigers live in habitats of thirty-three square miles in locations across India. With such dire straits and just a handful of survivors, tigers face a bleak future on earth.
WHEN WILL THEY ALL BE GONE?
Trick question. Dr. Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Save the Tiger Fund, agrees with Dr. Karanth on this subject: There is no way to predict the tiger’s future—not when human activity is such a key factor in generating any realistic population models. According to the field’s “optimists,” human efforts could make or break the tiger’s chance to survive the coming decade(s), as they have before. “In 1994, Time Magazine and others declared that tigers were ‘doomed’ and predicted near extinction by the year 2000. The world community reacted on this news,” Shrestha recounts. “Sadly, however, serious threats to the tiger’s long term viability remain—making our work as critical as ever.”
THREE MAJOR CAUSES
The tiger, India’s national animal and a cultural icon that transcends all of South Asia, could disappear for the following reasons:
1 Habitat loss Tigers are extremely versatile creatures, able to adapt to homes ranging from old coniferous forests in the Himalayas to the sizzling hills of the Indian peninsula. But in recent decades, these areas have been subject to excessive development and settlement, fragmenting and even destroying the land. Projects that involve developing the land or extracting resources from the forest exacerbate habitat loss.
2 Lack of prey One tiger must catch approximately one large animal (about the size of a deer) each week—if the individual is a tigress supporting cubs, that number increases. This means that each animal in a population needs more than 50 large prey per year. Yet, finding even 500 prey per 100 square miles is lucky. The bottom line: Research done by the Wildlife Conservation Society has shown that in some of India’s prime habitats, one tiger needs 3.7 square miles of habitat to secure proper nutrition.
3 Conflicts with humans “Poaching is once again on the rise…several tiger reserves are now emptied of their inhabitants,” says Shrestha. Tiger body parts are used in everything from aphrodisiacs to good luck charms to traditional Chinese remedies. To obtain these parts, poachers brutally kill tigers by shooting them, trapping them and even electrocuting them.
More problems result from indirect conflicts. Humans that hunt wild ungulates in tiger territory reduce the tiger’s chance of finding a meal. Livestock also present a problem; unlike forest dwellers, these animals tend to overgraze their favorite foods. Some livestock even pack the soil as they walk, reducing its fertility. Large native herbivores are left without a source of food; as these animals diminish, more and more tigers end up with empty stomachs.
These three causes contribute to internal population problems, such as reduced movement among tiger communities (leading to inbreeding) and lower numbers of cubs that are born or that survive to the following year. As tigers have less room to roam and fewer prey to feed on, their encroachment on human settlements spur a vicious cycle of tiger-human confrontation, leading to more deaths and an even more gloomy future.
AND I CARE BECAUSE…?
Besides the loss of a pretty zoo exhibit, how will the loss of the tiger affect humans? The tiger has been compared to “the canary in the mine” or “a fuel gauge on a car.” Categorized as apex predators, tigers are indicators of the ecosystem’s health. “A functioning tiger population indicates that everything is okay with the prey populations and the habitat and ecosystem that support it,” Karanth explains. If miners once recognized a poisonous environment by the absence of canary song, is mankind facing a similar alarm signal in the tiger’s demise?
“There is room in this world for both people and tigers…this must be so…or the quality of life will surely suffer a profound loss,” said Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when India’s Project Tiger commenced in 1972. Preserving pristine habitats in which the ecosystems function on their own, key predators included, means that everyone reaps simple benefits, such as the necessary pleasures of clean air and water. This link applies not only to tigers, but to the threatened lives of all endangered species.
Consider the following: Tigers are considered “charismatic megafauna,” which means they’re big, noticeable and fun to look at. Even a photograph of one gives the viewer an undeniable thrill of danger and excitement. If we can’t generate enough concern to save such an admired (and even revered) species, what hope do we have in saving those lesser species, the bats and lemurs and iguanas and ferrets? After all, we can only hope that we have not already eradicated irreplaceable treatments or cures in the approximately one hundred species that are destroyed each day, as reported by the World Resources Institute. As Prime Minister Gandhi phrased, “An environment in which animals and plants become extinct is not safe for human beings either.”
WHAT’S BEING DONE?
According to Dr. Doug Armstrong, veterinarian advisor to the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for tigers, the most significant contribution for overall global tiger conservation is a slew of technology transfer programs developed for tiger range countries. Tailored to each country’s needs, these programs can involve training veterinarians in the areas of physical examination and assisted reproduction techniques to training biologists in safe immobilization and transfer methods. Conservation advocacy groups like Wildlife First have also helped immensely through their efforts to close down destructive developmental projects (such as mines) and to promote peaceful human resettlement away from tiger habitats.
SSP for tigers also focuses on keeping as much genetic diversity as possible within captive tiger populations, hoping to preserve valuable genes that may be important for survival in the wilderness. “One of the most important factors in the conservation of any species is maintaining genetically healthy, stable populations,” says Armstrong. “We are working toward accomplishing that with captive Amur and Malaysian tiger populations.” To maximize genetic diversity, the program pairs the most distantly related tigers for matings. It also strives for cub births to at least equal elderly deaths, so that the population size does not decrease.
Although there is some debate as to whether or not captive tigers are helpful in regards to conservation, there is definite educational potential in zoos and sanctuaries. At the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas, director Richard Gilbreth spends his days supervising animal care, fundraising, writing grants and meeting with the public. “One should…remember there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild,” says Gilbreth. “[My job entails] educating the public about the situation that exists.”
YOU CAN HELP NOW
“Learn all you can about tigers…While doing that…get rich and send your money to save tigers to respectable organizations with a track record of excellence.” –Dr. Ron Tilson
You have already begun to help by reading this article and informing yourself on the situation. “People in all professions, not just professional wildlife conservationists, can act decisively…But all action has to [be] based on a clear understanding of the problem and solutions,” Karanth cautions. The next step is to tell everyone you know. Karanth and other leading experts have said the following about young people’s involvement:
Both time and hope are running out for the world’s tigers; we can only save them if we work together. The important thing is not to wait to take action—or they’ll all be gone in the flick of a whisker. — MARIAM KAMAL
References/ recommended reading:
K. Ullas Karanth. (2001) The Way of the Tiger, Voyageur Press.
K. Ullas Karanth, James D. Nichols, N. Samba Kumar, William A. Link, James E. Hines. (2004) Tigers and their prey: Predicting carnivore densities from prey abundance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volume 101 (issue 14).