Why we won’t give up on tigers
28 May 2010
It might seem odd to say that one of the world’s most impressive natural predators needs our help. But wild tigers, and the places where they live, have been under such constant pressures for decades –mostly manmade pressures – that we’re at make-or-break time for the species. Turning our back is not an option.
This is a big year for tigers – and not just because it’s the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar.
In January, governments of all 13 countries with tiger populations committed to doubling wild tigers in the coming 12 years – by the next Year of the Tiger.
And then there’s the upcoming Tiger Summit in September – the first ever of its kind. Heads of government from all those countries will sign up to a solid global tiger recovery plan.
It’s the kind of year we relish at WWF – when we hope to see rewards for lots of hard work and dedicated support.
It takes us by surprise a bit when some doom-monger asks: “Why bother? Why not just let tigers go extinct?” But it’s also good to tackle those questions head-on, even if it just confirms our belief that we’re doing the right thing.
There’s an obvious emotional response, from our hearts. How could we let such a beautiful creature disappear forever? And let it happen on our watch, when we still have a great chance to save it?
But there are sound scientific and environmental reasons for saving the species too. Tigers are crucial for entire ecosystems around them, and beyond. As top predators, they keep populations of prey species in balance. When tigers thrive, the whole ecosystem thrives. Biodiversity is the key to a healthy world – it’s what keeps our planet working.
Are tigers an unsuccessful species?
Tigers manage very well if left to their own devices. The fact that the world’s wild tiger population is in crisis – down from an estimated 100,000 animals a century ago to just over 3,000 now – has nothing at all to do with natural selection.
There’s very little ‘natural’ about the problems tigers face. By far the biggest threat to them is human activity – particularly the persistent destruction of forests, industrial-scale farming and poaching (of both tigers and their prey).
Poaching in particular is a huge problem right now. We need to tackle the poaching itself, and also eliminate the demand for, and thus the trade in, tiger skins and body parts, which are used in some traditional Asian medicines as well as ornamental purposes.
Turning the situation around is not a quick or simple process – it involves training, social and political diplomacy, technological ingenuity, and helping create alternative incomes and options for local people so they‘re less dependant on the forest resources. And WWF, in conjunctiomn with governments and other NGOs has been working on all these approaches – and more.
And there’s a precedent that gives us added hope we’ll succeed. There was another species that was widely persecuted for its body parts, whose population crashed to even less than the tigers: the white rhinos of southern Africa.
At the start of the 20th century there were fewer than 100 white rhinos left, hunted almost to extinction, mostly for their horns. Today there are more than 17,000. If we can successfully bring back a slow-breeding mammal like the white rhino, we can certainly do the same for tigers, which breed much more quickly.
What has our tiger work achieved so far?
We’re deeply committed to tiger conservation because we believe the work we’re doing has a genuine impact. We can see that the investment of time and money is helping protect this amazing species.
Yes, we’ve had setbacks, but also significant successes – for instance working with the Indian government to rescue the Indian tiger from oblivion in the 1970s, and more recent conservation projects that helped stabilise tiger populations in the Russian Far East and Terai Arc in India.
Even in areas where we’ve so far been unable to stop the loss of tigers altogether, we’ve often managed to reduce it, so the losses are far less than in unprotected areas.
Think about the alternative. To be brutally honest, the global tiger population would be in a far worse position if it wasn’t for the work of WWF and other similarly driven conservation organisations, and our inspirational supporters. Not to mention the many local people in Asia who are passionate about keeping wild tigers as part of their lives.
The extinction of wild tigers in India was a very real possibility just a few decades ago. And it could still happen there and elsewhere without constant vigilance.
That’s why our teams of dedicated scientists, wardens and local field workers are out there protecting the animals on the ground (we don’t do it all from an office in Surrey you know!), and liaising with local communities and governments to find solutions. And we’ll carry on doing so for as long as it takes.
What’s a tiger life worth?
Ultimately, we argue, a live tiger is far more valuable than a dead one. A dead tiger is only worth the sum of its parts, and only to a small number of individuals involved in the unpleasant illegal wildlife trade. But a breeding tiger population will continue to benefit the wider communities and ecosystems of the countries they live in for years, across generations.
In India and Nepal, wild tigers have already attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to national parks and reserves, providing jobs and security for local people. And, as we’ve said, the process of protecting tiger habitats also benefits the thousands of other species that live in these areas.
But we also know that without sustained work to combat poaching and protect habitats, tiger numbers can rapidly dip. That’s why it’s vital that long-term, global solutions are put in place now, before it’s too late.
This year offers an unprecedented opportunity to ensure the survival – and revival – of tigers in the wild. At September’s tiger summit in Russia we’ll help finalise the detailed plans for achieving this. Giving up on tigers is the last thing on our minds…
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