Hi everyone, I felt with such an important iconic species as the tiger—the largest cat in the world—I wanted to tell you more about the tiger meeting I just attended (see my last blog) in Huai Kha Khaeng, Thailand.
One disturbing fact that I learned, (and there are many), is that tigers now occupy just 7 percent of their historic range, and have 40 percent less habitat than was estimated 10 years ago.
At the meeting, the researchers outlined the three primary threats that face tigers. First of all, tigers are heavily hunted for their pelts and other body parts for traditional Chinese medicine, and are killed in retribution for preying on livestock or simply just out of fear when they move into or near human settlements.
Secondly, their prey are disappearing: no food, no tigers.
And lastly, tiger habitat continues to disappear and is becoming more fragmented as land is converted for development and agriculture.
Tiger experts estimate that there are about 425,000 square miles of tiger habitat still available, but just 23 percent of this is protected. Thus, tiger conservationists have to think beyond protected areas.
Because tigers are wide-ranging creatures, the bigger the landscape the better for the cats. Panthera, WCS and others are concentrating their conservation efforts on large landscapes that have both prey and tigers—that are, or have the potential to be connected.
The meeting in Thailand went on for five days—and with all this new information I also learned how history seems to play a large part in how people view tigers. Some consider them to be a dangerous pest, wishing they would vanish, while others hold them in awe and are horrified that they are disappearing, aware that the world would be much less rich without these majestic creatures.
Dr. George Schaller, Vice President of Panthera, began his seminal tiger study in 1963 in Kahna, India, which resulted in his groundbreaking book The Deer and the Tiger, published in 1967. Called “the bible of tiger research”, George began a revolution in wildlife biology regarding how to view predators in large landscapes and what is needed for their survival, issues that continue to be relevant to this day as human populations continue to swell.
Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, President and CEO of Panthera, began large cat studies in Huai Kha Khaeng, Thailand, in 1987, and in 1990 began country-wide tiger surveys. He was thrilled to be back at HKK and to see the progress there over the past twenty years—HKK is truly a stronghold for tigers in Thailand.
A few of the presentations at the meeting really stood out for me. In some areas, like India’s Western Ghats, tiger populations have grown exponentially over the last 20 years, with a combination of increased patrols, which reduced poaching of both tigers and their prey, and voluntary resettlement of villages out of protected areas. This very effective program, started by Dr. Ullas Karanth, director of WCS India, has shown dramatic results. Dr. Karanth, who began his long-term tiger research in Nagarahole, India in 1986, was deeply inspired by the work of George Schaller’s work in Kahna.
Nick Brickle and Beebach Wibisono, WCS tiger researchers working in Indonesia, described particularly thorny conflicts between tigers and farmers. Tigers live in forested areas that abut crop fields where farmers raise corn. Wild pigs leave the forest to feast on the corn; tigers love to eat the pigs and follow them—and when farmers put out snares to catch the pigs, they also catch other wildlife, including tigers. These tigers are caught and either killed, or authorities are called and the tiger is shipped off to a zoo. The team radio collared one of these “caught” tigers and relocated it—back to the wild. If that animal comes near human settlements again, the team will know—as it is monitoring the tiger’s movements and a team will be sent out to try to scare it back into the forest with fireworks and firecrackers. This actually happened during the workshop. Nick and Beebach received a call that the tiger was moving close to a village and the team was dispatched with pyrotechnics!
In another amazing presentation, Dale Miquelle and John Goodrich talked about the Amur tiger they study in the Russian Far East and across the border into China. In the last five years, 10,000 snares have been removed from China alone—an astounding feat.
But it takes more than individual studies to save tigers. It requires international cooperation and financial support of conservation programs.
Michael Cline and Tom Kaplan (founder of Panthera), became deeply involved in conservation initiatives because of their relationship with Alan. As very successful entrepreneurs, both were drawn to Alan’s passionate ability to get things done. Alan has created protected areas in every place he’s ever done research, it is literally his “no B.S”., get-the-job-done attitude they (and I) truly admire. As savvy businessmen, these men decided to remove the bureaucratic road blocks that can hamper the ability of large conservation organizations to react quickly and easily to new information—or crises—by creating their own programs and organization.
Sometime back, Alan was dubbed the “Indiana Jones of Zoology” by The New York Times, which is kind of funny as another good friend and a mentor of mine was once nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of Photography”—National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols.
The bottom line is that in order to protect the natural world we live in we need greater understanding and better cooperation. Humans compete with many wild animals—creatures that can’t speak for or protect themselves,. The people that study tigers, many of whom are present at this meeting, and the people who support their research and help brainstorm innovative conservation initiatives, are giving tigers a voice—and more importantly—a chance.