Tigers are native to much of Asia, from some of the coldest regions to the steamy rainforests of the Indonesian Islands. They are the top predator in every ecosystem they inhabit.
Until the 20th Century there were nine tiger subspecies that probably numbered over 100,000 animals. They included the giant 660-pound, or 300 kilo, Siberian (Pantera tigris altaica) and Caspian (Pantera tigris virgata; now extinct) tigers as well as the relatively small—and now also extinct—200-pound (90 kilo) Balinese tiger. Depending on whether there are any remaining South China tigers—nobody has seen one in years—there are either 5 or 6 tiger subspecies remaining in existence; all are endangered. All tiger subspecies put together currently amount to around 3,200 endangered tigers remaining in the wild.
BY PAUL GUERNSEY
How many Leonardo DiCaprios would it take to save the world’s remaining endangered tigers?
In November, DiCaprio, the Hollywood star, arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, to attend an international conference on tiger conservation that was being hosted by Vladimir Putin, the most powerful Russian politician as well as a huge fan of endangered tigers, of which his country has a few hundred still living in the wild. Mr. DiCaprio expressed his deep concern as a dedicated conservationist, set a wonderful example by taking out his own checkbook, and&mdasherhaps most importantly—helped direct a bright, if temporary, spotlight of public attention onto wild tigers, which are in grave peril of forever slipping off the face of the earth within the next decade.
At this desperate point, the cause of tiger conservation can certainly use all the attention it can get. However, the twenty-first century tide of factors rising against tigers has become so strong it is uncertain that anything—even the power of the stars—will be able to turn it. But, of course, we have to try.
All in all, perhaps somewhat more (or somewhat fewer) than 3,000 tigers remain at large in Asia’s dwindling wildernesses, down from an estimated 100,000 a century ago and falling fast, mostly to the snares and rifles of poachers who feed a lucrative illegal Asian market for their hides, bones and body parts. So devastating has the poaching been that loss of habitat, by far the main threat to most of the world’s other endangered species, is only second on the list of daunting problems facing tigers.
India, the country with the largest remaining tiger population, provides a good illustration of the species’ plight: In 2003, conservationists estimated the number of Indian tigers at 3,600. Today, a mere 8 years later, there are only around 1,300 Bengal tigers left in the country, with most of the loss caused by illegal hunting.
Nor is India an exception. Late last year, TRAFFIC, the international wildlife-trade monitoring network, reported that over the previous decade, law enforcement authorities in the 13 Asian “tiger range” countries—India included—had seized parts of 1,069 tigers that had been killed illegally. Because only a portion—and undoubtedly a small one—of poached tigers are ever recovered by law enforcement, the actual number taken by traffickers is presumed to be a shocking multiple of TRAFFIC’s figure.
The Amur, or Siberian, tiger subspecies native to Putin’s Russia has been the single bright spot in the otherwise dark picture of global tiger conservation. Down to fewer than 40 individuals in the 1920s, Siberian tigers have rebounded to a population of between 450 and 500 due to government protection. However—and in spite of the interest of Putin and other highly placed Russians—conservationists say that recently there has been a worrisome increase in the poaching of Russian tigers. The upsurge is doubtlessly due to the fact that the Chinese border lies close to the narrow strip of coastal Far Eastern Russia that is home to the remaining Amur tigers, and folk-medicine manufacturers, wine makers, and boutique restauranteurs in the increasingly affluent China are willing to pay top dollar for all kinds of tiger parts, including bones, eyes and penises. The skin, meat, bones and organs of one tiger can reportedly fetch from $25,000 to $50,000 at the end of the retail chain, and wild tigers are much more highly prized than the ones Chinese entrepreneurs are now raising in pens because they allegedly contain more “magic.”
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international anti-poaching organization, by the mid- to late 1990s, illegal hunters were killing a wild tiger every day to supply the lucrative and growing Asian market. An EIA spokesperson told AllAboutWildlife.com that probably fewer tigers than that are currently being killed—but only because they’ve become so scarce that illegal hunters are having a harder time finding them. (More on the Chinese market for tiger parts, next.
In St. Petersburg, Leonardo DiCaprio posed for a photo with Vladimir Putin, and he generously pledged $1 million of his own money toward easing pressures on the world’s remaining, desperately beleaguered tiger populations, which are divided among five surviving subspecies. (Three subspecies have already been driven into extinction, and the extinction of one other, the South China tiger, is strongly suspected.) In addition, the actor, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, has since launched a new public campaign to call attention to the threats faced by this critically endangered predator species.
Nor were DiCaprio and Putin the only high-profile people to appear at the International Tiger Conservation Forum: Other attendees on hand to talk about tigers included Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the prime ministers of Nepal and Bangladesh, supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Dick van Dyke, and World Bank head Robert Zoellick. Although tiger forums have been held in other years and in other countries, Putin’s event was exceptionally high-profile and well-attended because of his sponsorship, as well as the fact that it was taking place at the close of the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which ended February 2.