There's more. "I'm actually allergic to tigers," continues Tilson, 66. "If I touch them, I break out in hives." He chuckles. "Figure that. I'm the world expert. Never seen one. And I'm allergic to them."
While the allergy is incurable, Tilson might yet see his first wild tiger, in a central Chinese wilderness he is playing an almost godlike role in creating. Thanks to a unique collaboration between Minnesota Zoo and China's State Forestry Administration (SFA), a plan is under way to reintroduce the South China tiger, the rarest of the world's five surviving subspecies, back into its natural habitat. In this Year of the Tiger, the project has secured $3 million to restore a 250,000-acre (100,000 hectare) nature reserve straddling the borders of Hubei and Hunan provinces.
Half of this grant has been provided by the Chinese government, whose high-level interest in the project is easy to understand. Panthera tigris amoyensis is the progenitor of all modern tigers and the only subspecies unique to China. "You have a culture that reveres the tiger," says Tilson. "It's part of their fabric." By pulling a Chinese subspecies from the brink of extinction, China seeks not only to overturn an appalling record on conservation and the environment but also to gain a powerful new icon of national resurgence — not a cuddly giant panda this time but a formidable predator that eats herbivores for breakfast.
Tigers have never before been reintroduced to the wild. This is partly because scarce conservation resources are usually devoted to what Tilson calls "a failed strategy": protecting what few tiger habitats remain. "There needs to be a new paradigm," says Tilson. His answer? "Let's create wildernesses, as opposed to trying to protect the little fragments that are left." Hopes for resurrecting the South China subspecies rest largely on a captive population of 67 tigers, held in zoos across China. It will be challenging. Derived from just six animals — two male, four female — caught between 1958 and 1970, they are so inbred that they are virtually brothers and sisters. But, Tilson adds, "China is an economic juggernaut, a military powerhouse. As part of that portfolio they need to bring back the icon of Asian wilderness. And that's the tiger."
Back to the Future in half a century, the wild south China tiger population in China has been reduced from perhaps 4,000 to — Beijing disputes this — none. During Mao Zedong's time they were considered a pest and extermination campaigns were launched against them. Also taking a toll were loss of habitat, declining prey numbers and, as the economy took off, growing demand from traditional Chinese medicine for every part of the animal: whiskers, penis, bone, even feces.
Not one but four subspecies of tiger — Siberian, Indochinese, Bengal and South China — have been all but killed off within China's borders. In 1993, Beijing banned the nation's domestic trade in tigers and their parts and, today, China is one of 175 parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which outlawed tiger trafficking globally. But Chinese demand still drives a lucrative pan-Asian trade in poached tigers, which other countries blame for the accelerating decline in their own wild populations. In India, 88 tigers were killed in 2009 — double the previous year's figure.
China, where tiger-hunting was legal until 1977, is not the only country with a poor record of conservation. Tigers are also found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam — but only just. A century ago, there were an estimated 100,000 tigers in the wild in Asia. Now their numbers are at an "all time low" of 3,200, estimates the WWF, which in January warned the animals could be extinct in the wild by 2022 — the next Year of the Tiger — unless new efforts are made to save them.
Today, penalties for harming tigers in China are harsh — a villager in Yunnan province was recently jailed for 12 years for killing and eating what might well have been the country's last wild Indochinese tiger. But the laws are patchily enforced. In December the SFA released a directive promising better protection of wild tigers and a sterner crackdown on the illegal trade. Many conservationists remain unconvinced. "We've heard these words before from China," says Mike Baltzer, leader of the World Bank – backed Global Tiger Initiative at the conservation group WWF. "We're waiting to see if they really have any teeth." Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, says China's responsibilities are clear. "They've saved the panda," he says. "Now they must do the same for the tiger."
Tilson is used to skeptics. "Don't you read the newspapers?" he was asked by an outraged prospective donor in the U.S. "The goddamn Chinese eat their tigers and put them into medicine." But Tilson is convinced that China's economic and human resources make it uniquely placed to put tigers back in the wild. The South China project could help revolutionize Chinese attitudes to endangered species and kick-start other attempts to revitalize biodiversity. "China is at a tipping point in its conservation history," he says.
Reversing a Trend tilson's early relationship with chinese officialdom was almost scuppered by an inconvenient truth. In 2000, he and Minnesota Zoo teamed up with the SFA to make a census of wild South China tigers. They surveyed eight reserves in seven provinces over 18 months, set up hundreds of camera traps and investigated reports of any sighting — but found none. It was the first documented case of a tiger subspecies disappearing from the wild since the Javan tiger did so in the 1970s. Western colleagues cautioned Tilson that his gloomy conclusion would irritate the SFA. "They were right," he says, laughing. "It really irritated them. I was pretty much shunned for almost two years."
But one day Tilson got an out-of-the-blue call from the SFA inviting him to Beijing. China planned to reintroduce South China tigers to the wild and wanted Tilson to be the lead scientific adviser. In 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the SFA and Tilson's South China Tiger Advisory Office based in Minnesota Zoo, and the long task of reintroducing tigers to the wild began.
Tilson had to first work out which of the eight surveyed areas might support tigers once again. The winning candidate was the rugged Hupingshan-Houhe reserve, which lies within the tiger's historical range. Its terrain isn't too mountainous (contrary to popular belief, tigers prefer lowlands) and there is plenty of natural vegetation (other areas were blanketed with pine or bamboo trees). The human population, mainly elderly vegetable farmers banished there during Mao's political purges, is sparse and willing to relocate. Not that anyone is likely to stay put when the new neighbors arrive, jokes Tilson. "Once you get face to face with a tiger, you leave," he says. "They are formidable animals."
The next task is restoring the wilderness. Tigers need large habitats and abundant food; just one tiger will eat up to 12 pounds (5.4 kg) of meat a day, the equivalent of a large deer every week. Creating a tiger Eden virtually from scratch feels a bit like playing God, admits Tilson, but restoring the prey (mainly deer) will be "real easy," since all these species once lived in Hupingshan-Houhe in numbers that supported tigers. "We're not trying to reintroduce a bunch of animals and predators into a system that never had them before," he says.
Once the wilderness is complete, the tricky part begins: breeding the tigers to inhabit it. The last remaining South China tigers could die out within a few generations unless their genes are supplemented with those from other subspecies. It is not an image China's propagandists will want to project: a captive population of "Chinese" tigers, enfeebled by decades of inbreeding and reliant on genes from, say, a Vietnamese subspecies before they can survive in the wild. But ultimately, says Tilson, the Chinese will have to accept this hybridization "because it's already been done and they have no other cards to play." It could be up to 10 years before the first pregnant tigers are taken to a remote, enclosed area within the reserve to deliver the cubs that will eventually populate it. Although captive-bred, the mothers will teach their young how to hunt and kill prey. "This ability is hardwired," says Tilson. "They don't lose it."
Into the Wild Tigers breed easily — they are cats, after all — and some 5,000 are kept on farms across China. The recent SFA directive pledged to better regulate these farms, but not to shut them down. This makes a mockery of China's avowed concern for tigers, say many conservationists. The farms ostensibly make their money from tourists, although some illegally sell tiger meat and parts. How can the same SFA officials who plan to save the South China tigers ignore the fate of thousands of their farm-raised cousins? The authorities argue that if public demand can be met by farms then wild tigers won't be poached. But conservationists believe these same facilities fuel demand and fatally undermine conservation efforts. Steven Galster, director of the Bangkok-based wildlife and human-rights group FREELAND, says the SFA is using the reintroduction scheme "to justify captive-tiger breeding operations in China, some of which are actually selling tiger bones. Those sales are sending very mixed signals to Chinese consumers, perpetuating demand for tiger parts, which in turn sends a signal to poachers across Asia that this lucrative business is still taking orders."
How lucrative? By China's own estimate, the traditional-medicine industry has lost an average of $266 million a year since the domestic ban was imposed in 1993. That landmark legislation remains "critical" to the future of wild tigers, says Li Zhang, associate professor of conservation biology at Beijing Normal University. "The Chinese government needs to strengthen its enforcement of the ban," says Zhang.
Ron Tilson opposes tiger-farming — "The day I see tigers on meat hooks is the day I'm gonna die" — and says many of his SFA colleagues privately oppose it too. He believes that official and popular attitudes in China toward conservation are changing so fast that the country's past record is a poor guide for future actions. "That was then," he insists. "This is now." What China does next could decide whether this is a Year of the Tiger worth celebrating.
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