At the beginning of the 20th century, over 100,000 tigers roamed the earth. Since then, their numbers have steadily plummeted; as of 2010 only 3,200 were still alive in their natural habitats. But despite being the year that this devastatingly low number was officially released, 2010 (the last official Year of the Tiger under the Chinese Lunar Calendar) may have been the best year for these big cats in recent history.
But before we look at the events that transpired in 2010, it’s important to look back at how we got here. At a time there were nine subspecies of tigers on earth: the Bali, Javan, Caspian, Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, South China, and Sumatran. In the last 70 years the Bali, Javan, and Caspian subspecies have all vanished and the six remaining subspecies are all listed as either endangered or critically endangered. There are two main categories that all causes for tiger population depletion fall into: hunting and encroaching human populations.
Population decline in tigers has not been limited to the last century. If we could look back in time several hundred years we would see populations far exceeding the 100,000 mark. While tigers have been hunted by humans for well over 1,000 years, ever improving technology continues to make poaching easier and hence a bigger problem. Tigers are hunted for sport, for their pelts, and for their bones which are believed to provide medicinal benefits. Tiger parts are bought and sold on illegal trade markets for obscene amounts of money, while the fines given to poachers are not substantive enough to deter hunting. Loss of habitat due to the growth of human populations is increasing at an accelerating rate. As humans have developed the areas that tigers once called home, tigers have had less and less space to live. Huge expanses of their habitats have been lost to construction, deforestation, farming, and tourism. A population of tigers that is forced into a space that is too small to provide enough natural resources for all members will inevitably shrink due to competition or will disappear entirely. In the last century, 93% of the tigers’ historic range has usurped by human populations.
Scientists have remarked that the tiger population is at a tipping point; what we do right now will determine whether tigers survive long-term or if they are wiped out forever. There are still enough left for populations to recover, but we are getting dangerously close to a point where nothing we do will matter. That is why in 2010 a goal was put forth by the World Wildlife Fund: to double the international tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. In November 2010 Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin hosted the International Tiger Conservation Forum. The forum was a great success. All 13 countries where tigers can still be found (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam) endorsed the forum and millions of dollars were raised to continue fighting for the cause of these majestic animals. While the major threats to tiger populations are still out there, the cause of protecting tigers is gaining much needed momentum.
It has been about 6 months since the forum and as one would expect, there has been some encouraging signs and some not so encouraging signs. At the end of March, 2011 scientists in India shared news that their tiger population had reached 1,706. This was up from 1,411 in 2007 which was the last time a census of the wild tiger population in India had been conducted. This is very promising news considering that India is home to approximately half of the world’s tiger population. Just this month rangers from Thailand’s Thap Lan national park released news that they have confirmed a small population of tigers exists within the park. Though only 8 have been confirmed, it is expected that there are more in the park, where scientists previously believed the tiger population had been completely eradicated. While this population may be too small to be sustainable, it does suggest that there may be more tigers in the wild than the scientific community previously thought. However, at the same time the world received the good news from Thailand, the World Wildlife Fund was hard at work trying to prevent logging in an Indonesian forest that is home to a population of Sumatran tigers. Progress is clearly being made in the plight of the tigers, but there is still a very long road ahead for those who are trying to protect the future of the species.
People may feel that there is nothing they can do on their own to help ensure tiger survival, but the truth is that they can. Only buy recycled paper and wood products which have been certified by the FSC — many areas inhabited by tigers are being cleared to make room for the pulp and paper industry. Starting in September 2011 you can also purchase the Save Vanishing Species stamps that are currently being created by the USPS. These stamps will cost slightly more than the current postage rate and all extra funds will be donated to support a number of endangered species including the tiger. If you would like to donate to the cause of tigers, consider donating through the World Wildlife Fund. They are asking for $8 a month donations from those who are willing and able. Finally, if you are planning a trip to Asia, consider tiger tourism. The money that comes into local communities where tiger tourism activities are hosted is crucial as it counters the need for local inhabitants to hunt for tigers as means of survival. Whether you want to do something big or small, there are plenty of ways that you can help to ensure the tigers’ future on earth.
Photo credit: dnrec.delaware.gov/News/Pages/Brandywine_Zoo_mourns_loss_of_Siberian_tiger,_Ashley.aspx