Endangered tigers roaring back across Asia

Tyger tyger: The largest cat species. There are fewer than 4,000 left in the wild. © Alamy

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.

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.

So, are tigers the key to saving the planet?

The comeback cat

Yes say some. As a flagship species, it pushes us to act and donate money in a way that a rare plant or lizard cannot.

Others say no. Saving the tiger makes us feel good and forget that we were the very species that drove them nearly to extinction.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to get close to a wild tiger?

Activities

  1. Make your own painting of a tiger to celebrate the good news that they’re coming back.

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 edge of extinction, by overhunting and destroying their habitat. Governments have tried to protect them by creating protected reserves and controlling the sale of tiger body 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.

Word Watch

WWF
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 backing 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.
Momentous
Of great importance or significance.
Worshipped
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.
Iconic
Important or impressive because it seems to be a symbol of something.
Keystone species
They 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.
Charismatic
Someone or something that is so charming that people become devoted to them.
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.
Amphibians
Cold-blooded vertebrates (they have backbones) that don’t have scales – such as, frogs. They live part of their lives in water and part on land.
Flagship
The best or most important thing in a group.

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