Tigers Make a Comeback: Something to Roar About
In a small triumph, the population of tigers in India and Thailand has grown. At the very end of last year, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reported that the numbers of tigers have increased in some protected areas in those two countries, thanks in part to significant government effort.
In India, in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka State, there are now some 250 to 300 of the giant cats, a quadrupling of their population from some 30 years ago. In Thailand’s Huai Kha Kaeng wildlife sanctuary, there are now about 50 tigers.
These numbers are tiny when compared to the estimated 100,000 tigers who lived in forests from Turkey to Russia to Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. Tigers now occupy only some 6 percent of their historic range and number about 3,200 in the wild, a drastic decline that is directly the result of humans hunting the big cats and encroaching ever further into their habits.
In particular, those conditions involve the active, if not aggressive, support of governments.
Saving Tigers in India and Thailand
The WCS started to address the catastrophic decline in the world’s tiger numbers in the 1960s in India. To count tigers, the WCS uses camera traps, which enable them to record tigers’ unique stripe patters using the same fingerprint-matching software that criminologists use. The Indian government also stepped off law enforcement resources to fend off poachers and address conflicts of tigers with humans.
These combined efforts have led to a 50 percent increase in the tiger populations in India’s Bhadra and Kudremukh tiger reserves and to the WCS seeking to apply what it has learned to other areas, specifically Thailand’s 1,042 square mile Huai Kha Kaeng sanctuary: for all that this was a protected preserve, the area has been the site of “epidemic poaching,” to feed a global black market for tiger parts (pelts, bones, reproductive organs and meat).
Thanks to stepped-up anti-poaching efforts, the Thai government not only broke up a “notorious poaching ring” but gave the gang leaders prison sentences of up to five years, the most severe ever for such charges. The camera traps proved more than valuable as they provided evidence in court that tigers from the Huai Kha Kaeng sanctuary had been poached. According to the WCS, since then, “there have been no known tiger or elephant poaching incidents in the park.”
Russia Tightens Laws, Creates a New Tiger Sanctuary
In another positive sign, the WCS reports that the Russian government is drafting a new law that will make the transport, sale and possession of endangered species not (as it currently is) a civil crime, but a criminal one. Previously, poachers have been able to claim that they have found tigers and other endangered species dead, thereby avoiding harsher penalties for poaching.
In addition, Russia has created the Central Ussuri Wildlife Refuge, ensuring that tigers can cross its border with China under protection. The new refuge links the main population of Amur tigers, Russia’ Sikhote-Alin tiger population, with “some of the best tiger habitat in China’s Heilongjiang Province in the Wandashan Mountains.”
Government and Conservationist Partnerships Are Key
In protecting an endangered species like tigers, government support is crucial, as Alan Rabinowitz, the head of the conservation organization Panthera, emphasizes. ”An N.G.O. along can’t accomplish this alone — the government really has to step up and put in its own law enforcement resources,” he notes. Saving tigers is a “team effort” requiring “collaboration with governments, law enforcement, fellow conservationists, and local people, we can save these big cats across their range,” the WCS’s Executive Vice President of Conservation and Science, John Robinson, says.
The WCS acknowledges that not every individual tiger can be saved; in Vietnam and Laos, conservationists have “written tigers off as a lost cause.” As Robinson notes, the WCS is focusing its efforts on 42 “source sites” — where there are at least 25 breeding females — in India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Russia and northern China where there is a “realistic chance of protecting tigers”; it is currently working in 24 of these.
Saving tigers and other endangered species is not rocket science, but it does take intense efforts to fend off poachers and requires governments and conservationists working together.
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