Wild Tigers Facing Extinction

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Wild Tigers Facing Extinction

By Rene Freling on City College, Brighton and Hove Australia
May 2009

They may have made headlines around the world, but the three Sumatran tiger cubs unveiled in Western Australia last month are not merely a cute addition to Perth Zoo’s attractions. They also happen to be part of a breeding program aimed at trying to save a species on the brink of extinction. With time running out fast, tourism may be part of the solution but not all tiger facilities are helping the cause.

Of all the animals on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species list, the tiger undoubtedly gives rise to the greatest cause for concern. Only around 4,000 now remain in the wild globally compared with 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

As such, it is not surprising that the Tiger Temple sanctuary in Kanchanabury, Thailand, is so popular. Hundreds of tourists visit the Buddhist temple and surrounding park every day, eager for the unique experience of being allowed to pose for photos with a live, fully grown tiger’s head on their laps.

The temple’s relationship with tigers is reputed to have begun when an abandoned cub was left at its gates in 1999. More orphaned cubs are said to have followed, and with the help of an in-house breeding program, their tiger population has now grown to 17.

The animals appear to be in good health, and the biggest worry for visitors has generally been that sedatives are used to facilitate close contact with people. A number of independent tests have shown this not to be true; the reason for their placid behavior is that the tigers have been around humans all their lives, and visitors are only allowed to pose with the nocturnal animals during a strict window when they are at their most docile.

But any visitors who left the temple with a clear conscience will be saddened to read a report by UK-based conservation group Care for the Wild International. In June, they released findings showing that the temple has been trading their animals illegally with a tiger farm in Laos.

Far from helping to conserve the species, the temple is actually damaging the long-term prospects of tigers both through irresponsible breeding and the funding of farms which fuel the black market in illegal products.

While the temple denies the illegal trade, former staff members have backed up the report’s claims, suggesting that although the monks themselves may not ask questions about where the animals come from, others within the temple such as the handlers are responsible for the trading.

In October, the International Tiger Coalition, an alliance of 39 international organizations which includes the WWF, wrote to Thailand’s Director General of National Wildlife, accusing the Tiger Temple of being “motivated purely by profit both in [its] display of the tigers to tourists and in its illegal trading”. It demanded that the temple’s animals be relocated to a WWF accredited facility.

Even though there is a global effort to increase the gene pool of tigers by selective breeding programs such as the project in Australia, releasing captive tigers into the wild is extremely difficult, making the plight of the few remaining wild tigers so important. But with Asian forests fragmenting as fast as their economies are expanding, the future has been looking increasingly bleak.

Three fundamental problems lie at the heart of the issue: poaching, deforestation and a lack of prey. In order for tigers to have any realistic hope of survival, a concerted global effort tacking all three elements is required urgently.

Of the nine original subspecies of tiger, the Bali, Caspian and Javan are already extinct and the South China Tiger has not been seen in the wild for over 40 years. The five which remain, the Siberian, Malayan, Indo-Chinese, Bengal and Sumatran, are spread across south-east Asia, small areas of China and Russia, and the sub-continent, with around 1,400 in India.

Conservation efforts have been ongoing for some time but success has been limited. The once respected Sariska Reserve in Rajasthan, India, was found to have no tigers remaining at all after poachers had killed all 22 of its ‘protected’ animals.

Every part of a tiger can be sold, making them an extremely lucrative catch for poachers. The cost of trapping a tiger using a snare or poisoned bait may be as little as US $100, but the skin, bones, meat and teeth of a single adult male can fetch as much as US $70,000 on the black market.

Efforts to curb the trade have been largely ineffective. Tiger parts were seen being sold openly in Sumatra, Indonesia, earlier this year, and despite their use in Chinese medicine being illegal for 15 years, a 2008 survey of 1,800 Chinese residents demonstrates just how little the country’s appetite for tiger products has diminished.

The findings, published by not-for-profit research organisation PLoS ONE, part of the Public Library of Science, showed 43% of respondents admitting to using tiger products since the ban was imposed. The most popular items were plasters containing tiger-bone and tiger-bone wine, which at US$63 to US$124 for a 500ml bottle is increasingly popular with China’s noveau-riche.

There had even been calls within China to lift the ban amid claims that farming tigers for the purpose of satisfying demand would solve the problem of poaching. But given that 71% of respondents to the PLoS ONE survey expressed a preference for wild tiger parts over those of farmed tigers, it seems that legalizing trade would do little more than fuel the nation’s appetite while making the trafficking of wild tigers virtually impossible to track.

To deter poaching, global deterrents need to be more stringently enforced and significantly more punitive. In India, between 2003 and 2007, 186 tigers are known to have been deliberately killed, and yet despite the country’s long-standing reputation for tiger protection, not a single trader and only 10 poachers were convicted during this time. In Indonesia, where trade on some islands is rife, the most severe jail term handed out for tiger-related offences between 2004 and 2006 was 14 months, along with a $110 fine. It is not surprising the black market has been able to flourish.

As well as the ongoing issue of poaching, the other significant problems facing tigers are environmental. Tigers command huge territories, but large areas of suitable terrain with sufficient prey are becoming increasingly scarce, and protecting this land is not always the most profitable solution for governments.

In Sumatra, for example, the lowland forests which are home to tigers also contain valuable timber, yet unless these habitats are prioritized for conservation, there will soon be nowhere for their tigers left to roam.

Speaking earlier this year, Sujoy Banerjee, Director of WWF India’s Species Conservation Program, summed up the need for immediate action. “In many ways, the tiger stands at a crossroads between extinction and survival, and which path it takes is totally dependent on us,” he said.

The solution may partly lie in ecotourism. India is home to the world’s largest tiger population, but in the past its reserves have been difficult to police and have proven unprofitable due to low admittance charges. There has also been a disparate relationship between the reserves and local businesses which, despite benefiting from tourism, have not invested their profits into developing these conservation areas.

Conversely, according a 2008 report by the World Bank, Nepal has been more successful, having developed “a community-based tourism model with a strong emphasis on sharing benefits with locals and on the regeneration of degraded forests...creating a local constituency for conservation”.

It is this kind of community-based approach which is key to sustaining habitats for wild tigers. This has been demonstrated most clearly in Russia, where numbers of Siberian Tigers were as low as 250 in the mid 1980s, but following the combined efforts of international organizations, the Russian Government and local communities, numbers have now risen to around 500.

Thankfully, money from ecotourism is increasing rapidly; its global revenues are estimated to have risen ten-fold in the last 20 years. More than 1.3m tourists already visit Indian tiger reserves annually, and the country still has between 200,000 and 300,000 sq km of terrain suitable for tigers – enough for 15,000 to 20,000 animals.

With the Indian Government now promising to spend to $150m on tiger protection in the next five years, and the sentencing in November of a notorious Indian tiger trader to six years in prison, there are signs that the necessary steps are finally being taken.

Whether the actions have come quickly enough, only time will tell. Russia’s example has shown that tiger numbers will grow if they are protected properly in the right habitats with sufficient prey. But their long-term survival also depends on an increase in global funding and full international governmental support, as well as the education of tourists to ensure they spend their money visiting genuine conservation projects rather than sites like Thailand’s Tiger Temple.

Visitors to official reserves may not get to pose for photos with a tiger’s head on their laps, but if we are not careful, pictures may be all we have left of one of the most magnificent animals ever to roam the planet.

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