New hope in the year of the (dwindling) tiger

Posted: 10 February 2010

The year 2010 is the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar and celebrations of the year will begin on Monday (February 14) in many parts of Asia. Today tigers occupy only seven percent of their historic range and there are now as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild, down from an estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. So what are the chances that this 'year' will make any difference?

Three tiger subspecies went extinct in the last century and a fourth, the South China tiger, may well be extinct in the wild. The remaining populations have been pushed to historically low numbers, mostly due to poaching and habitat loss. New threats such as climate change and captive breeding for trade are looming on the horizon.

South China tiger
South China tiger
South China tiger in Beijing Zoo. Photo © WWF-Canon/John MacKinnon
But there is hope,say tiger experts. Wild tigers thrive when they have strong protection from poaching and habitat loss, along with sufficient prey. In September a Global Tiger Summit will be held in Vladivostok, Russia. At the summit, tiger range countries will lay out an ambitious agenda for the recovery of tiger populations throughout Asia.

The summit is co-hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and World Bank President Robert Zoellick and will be supported by members of the tiger conservation community.

Among those concerned, WWF is launching a conservation campaign to highlight tiger issues and develop new plans and funding sources. The ambitious aim is to double the number of tigers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022 - a goal that was recently adopted by all tiger range countries and by partners at a ministerial meeting in Thailand.

A new map of The Top 10 Tiger Trouble Spots in 2010 is an effort to increase awareness of the many threats to wild tigers, both in their home ranges and in parts of the world that have an impact on them. WWF says it serves as a 'big picture' overview of the major issues that need to be addressed. The ten key trouble spots are listed below:

India: tigers and humans

The combination of habitat degradation, the loss of connectivity between tiger habitats and a growing human population have all led tigers and humans to come into conflict with each other. This is common across the country around most tiger reserves, including Corbett, Dudhwa, Kaziranga, Kanha and Bandipur.

The consequence is losses for both sides. For people, the situation leads to loss of life and livestock. For tigers, it leads to retaliatory killing, poaching for trade and loss of prey.

Bangladesh: saving mangroves

Siberian Tiger
Siberian Tiger
The Siberian Tiger's range has contracted dramatically in the last 10 years. © Lynn M. Stone / naturepl.com
A new study led by WWF predicts that sea level rise may cause the remaining tiger habitat in Bangladesh's Sundarbans mangrove forest to decline by 96 percent this century and push the region's tiger population to fewer than 20 breeding tigers from around 250 to 432 today. This population of tigers is already under extreme pressure from poaching and human encroachment on their habitat. If their mangrove forest home disappears, they will join the polar bear as early victims of climate change-induced habitat loss.

Russia: logging pressures

An increasing global demand for Korean pine and Mongolian oak has fuelled a massive logging increase in Russia's remaining temperate forests and a resulting loss of habitat for Amur tigers. As much as 70 per cent of all hardwood exports from the Russian Far East are tainted by illegal logging. Sustainable production is beginning to take hold along with increased antipoaching efforts, but tiger populations are still under threat.

China: tiger parts still sought

Despite efforts to stop the demand for tiger parts, Chinese demand for illegal tiger products is among the highest in the world. Due to their high demand, some entrepreneurs are stockpiling and breeding tigers in anticipation of a possible opening of the domestic market. Hopefully that day will not come.

Last February, the Chinese government reiterated its commitment to prohibiting trade in tiger parts under its obligations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Whole fresh tiger skin for sale in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 2005. Photo: Chen EIA/WPSI
Whole fresh tiger skin for sale in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 2005. Photo: Chen EIA/WPSI
Whole fresh tiger skin for sale in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 2005© Chen EIA/WPSI
And in December 2009, China's State Forestry Administration issued a directive calling for stronger enforcement against the illegal tiger trade, along with habitat management to increase protection of wild tigers. China is also eager to work with its neighbours on cross-border tiger conservation.

Vietnam: ancient traditions die hard

The discovery last October of two dead frozen tigers in suburban Hanoi may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tiger trafficking Seizures by authorities of tiger parts have been on the increase in Vietnam and throughout Asia. This reflects a greater demand for tiger parts to be used as ingredients for health tonics and some traditional Asian medicine, meat for restaurants and skins for fashion.

While many schools of traditional Asian medicine have phased out the use of tigers and other endangered species, the lucrative black market trade has thrived. The trade even occurs in some big cities in Europe and the US.

United States: captive tigers

There are more tigers alive in captivity in the United States (over 5,000) than there are in the wild. Numerous loopholes in federal and state law create openings for black market trade in captive tiger parts. This further endangers wild tigers because a steady supply of parts from captive-bred tigers may fuel the demand for parts from wild tigers, which are considered even more valuable. Texas has the highest number of captive tigers, and in many states the laws on keeping dogs as pets are more stringent thanthose on keeping tigers.

Europe: destroying habitat

European countries are today importing around 5.8 million tons (5.3 million metric tons) of palm oil annually, an ingredient used in making countless everyday foods and products, from lipstick to ice cream to biofuels and detergents. Rain forests are often leveled to make way for palm oil plantations, and much of that destruction is taking place in Indonesia and Malaysia, home to Sumatran and Malayan tigers.

Efforts to require that palm oil be produced from sustainable sources are gaining ground, but much more needs to be done to save these two tiger subspecies.

Nepal: global crossroads

Nepal is a major crossroads for illegal trade in tiger parts from South Asia into the Tibetan Autonomous Region and elsewhere in China. Tiger skins for traditional Tibetan costumes, tiger bones for traditional medicine, and a host of other illegal wildlife products taken from India and Nepal's tiger reserves are ferried through the country by a covert network of middlemen from Kathmandu and elsewhere.

Mekong: damaging dams and roads

Growth in the Greater Mekong region (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) is moving at an unprecedented pace, with hundreds of proposed new dams and roads. If not properly planned with environmental criteria in mind, these dams and roads will damage watersheds, increase access for poachers and further fragment large wilderness areas that are critical for the long-term survival of tigers, humans and countless other species.

A recent report, Tigers on the Brink, says that tiger populations in this region have plummeted to about 350 (see related story link below).

Indonesia and Malaysia: plantation mayhem

The Sumatran tiger. Photo: Fredy Mercay/WWF
The Sumatran tiger. Photo: Fredy Mercay/WWF
The Sumatran tiger. Only 400-500 now remain in the wild. Photo © Fredy Mercay/WWF
Indonesia's only tiger, the Sumatran, is critically endangered, with fewer than 400 alive in the wild. Also home to orangutans, elephants and rhinos, Sumatra's forests are being cleared fast - to make way for plantations to feed a world hungry for paper and palm oil. The island lost half (31 million acres or 12.5 million hectares) of its natural forest between 1985 and 2008. More than a third of that loss happened in Riau Province, pushing its globally unique biodiversity, including tigers and elephants, to the brink of extinction.

Palm oil and pulp and paper industries have been driving the natural forest loss to make Sumatra the number one producer of both commodities in Indonesia. Companies such as Sinar Mas Group's Asia Pulp and Paper and Raja Garuda Mas' APRIL, operate in Riau and export their products globally.

In Peninsular Malaysia, the federal government's ambitious goal of doubling the population of Malayan tigers to 1,000 by the year 2022 is challenged by the state governments' plans for increased timber extraction and forest conversion to rubber and oil palm plantations, and by their simple lack of participation in federal plans for enhanced enforcement within tiger habitats.

Related links:

For an interactive map of the Top 10 Tiger Troublespots, go here.

Mekong tigers plummet to 350