Endangered tigers roaring back across Asia
Are tigers the key to saving the planet? The big cat is bouncing back, with numbers rising across six countries. But some warn this news is a distraction from a gloomy global picture.
From the swamps of Bengal to the mountains of China, the tiger is coming home. According to the WWF, the big cat was in a “perilous state”, close to extinction 10 years ago. But, thanks to a conservation initiative to double the population by 2022, numbers are rising in six countries.
Three-quarters of all wild tigers live in India, where it is the national animal and protected on 50 national reserves. Since 2006, numbers have doubled to around 3,350 animals. In China, a tigress has been spotted with her cubs – a momentous sight in a country that once worshipped the tiger, but is now home to barely a handful.
For millennia, the tiger has been a powerful symbol of the ferocious beauty of nature. William Blake’s famous 1794 poem The Tyger asks: “what immortal hand or eye” could have created such a magnificent monster – 660-pounds of muscle, teeth, and claws, camouflaged by its stripes, stalking its prey in the dark of night?
As a sign of power and strength, it has been popular with kings and sports teams, and used to sell everything from breakfast cereal to petrol. But its fearsome reputation almost led to its extinction. In the 19th Century, tales of man-eating tigers encouraged British colonial officers and maharajas to compete in killing some 80,000 animals.
Hunting tigers was outlawed in 1971, but their troubles were not over. Their bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine, creating a black market that continues to threaten numbers. But the biggest concern is the loss of habitat. Cities, farmland, and roads have cut up their vast territory, marooning them in patches of forest covering only 7% of their original range.
So, today’s numbers are great news for the tiger. But the WWF says it is also about the future of “the landscapes they inhabit and the communities living alongside this iconic big cat”. It is a keystone species, a top predator that plays a key role in its vast and diverse ecosystem. Save the tiger, the WWF argues, and we save the forests. And because the forests are essential to stopping climate change, we will also save the planet.
Others are less convinced. Charismatic big beasts like the panda, polar bear, and tiger grab headlines and raise money. But in the last 10 years, 467 species have been declared extinct. These include some high-profile casualties like Lonesome George and the Black Rhino. But many more plants, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians have been lost whilst we struggle to keep the tiger alive.
Naturalist Chris Packham went as far as to suggest we “pull the plug” on the panda and focus money and resources on less glamorous endangered species. Ecologist Ken Thompson argues we are creating the misleading impression that all we need to do is save the tigers. “Much as we like tigers,” he says, we need to understand the real problem, “and that the casualties will not just be tigers, but us – our standard of living, and ultimately our very survival”.
So, are tigers the key to saving the planet?
The comeback cat
Yes say some. Tigers are a charismatic and universally loved animal that grabs our attention and helps people understand what is happening to the natural world. As a flagship species, it pushes us to act and donate money in a way that a rare plant or lizard cannot. But also, by protecting the king of the jungle, we inevitably must conserve the jungle itself. And with it, we save all the other species.
Others say no. Saving the tiger makes us feel good and forget that we were the species that drove them nearly to extinction. The advance of human habitation and agriculture means they will never return to their former glory. And, meanwhile, other more important plants and animals are edging towards extinction. If we focus too much on the tiger, we may kill our planet.
- Would you like to get close to a wild tiger?
- What is more important: protecting species or ecosystems?
- Make your own painting of a tiger to celebrate the good news of their revival.
- Write a poem from the point of view of a tiger.
Some People Say...
“When a man wants to murder a tiger, he calls it sport; when a tiger wants to murder him, he calls it ferocity.”George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish playwright
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Humans are responsible for bringing tigers to the brink of extinction, by overhunting and destroying their habitat. Governments have tried to protect them by creating protected reserves and controlling the sale of tiger parts. However, guarding these huge reserves is difficult and expensive, and the illegal trade continues. Also, as tiger numbers rise, they come into contact with communities, threaten livestock and people, creating tensions and a backlash against the tiger.
- What do we not know?
- How helpful it is to focus so much attention on one species. Charismatic, beautiful flagship species help raise awareness about forest conservation, but they can also direct resources away from other species. And there is always the risk that support will disappear along with the tiger. Some experts point out that the tiger is already locally extinct in much of its former habitat. These tigerless forests are just as important for conservation, but may be neglected.
- The World Wildlife Fund is an international organisation for wilderness conservation. Its symbol is the panda, another iconic endangered species used to publicise the problem of threatened wildlife.
- Conservation initiative
- A meeting of world leaders in 2010, and celebrity endorsements from actor Leonardo DiCaprio and model Naomi Campbell, raised £330m to save the tiger. DiCaprio gave £1 million of his own money to the project and has been a vocal supporter of conservation.
- The tiger plays a central role in traditional Chinese culture as the king of the beasts and a guardian against evil spirits. The White Tiger of the West is one of the four main symbols in Chinese astronomy, and one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
- The Tipu Sultan (1750-99) of Mysore, India, used the symbol of the tiger in his army and throughout his kingdom. His main enemy was the British and he even made a life-size moving model of a tiger attacking a British soldier.
- Indian nobility during the British control of India. Tiger hunts were conducted on elephants and in the course of a career, a maharaja might hope to kill 1,000 tigers.
- Chinese medicine
- Powdered bones are turned into pills to treat rheumatism, arthritis, and sexual impotence. The demand for tiger parts skyrocketed in the 1980s as China became more wealthy and rediscovered an interest in traditional medicine.
- Keystone species
- These animals play a disproportionately large role in their ecosystem. Because of their importance, they are often made into “flagship species” by conservation groups to raise awareness.
- Climate change
- Rainforests act as a global carbon sink, removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in trees. The home of the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia contains 36% of the world’s tropical carbon stores.
- Lonesome George
- Born in 1910, George was the last Pinta Tortoise. He lived to be 101 and died in the Galápagos National Park in Ecuador in 2012.