Of all the fantastic creatures in the animal world, few are as breathtakingly beautiful as the tiger, the largest of the cat species. With their striking striped tawny fur and sinuous grace, the tiger is surely one of the most spectacular animals on our planet. Once widespread throughout Europe, their numbers have fallen by a shocking 93% in the last century. Wild tiger numbers are scarily low, with an estimate of less than five thousand.
This past July 29th was World Tiger Day and conservation organizations and wildlife lovers around the world celebrated the tiger to raise awareness of its endangered status. Dedicated conservationists have made some progress. In India, tiger populations have increased slightly in the last five years, but that does not mean that they are safe. Destruction of their habitat, as India develops into an economic and industrial giant, continues to put pressure on the future of that country’s tiger populations. Since around one third of the world’s wild tiger population is in India, local initiatives like Project Tiger have a huge role to play inside the country.
Saving tigers is not just a problem for the individual countries that still have wild populations like China, Russia, Tibet and Sumatra. Conserving tigers is now an international issue, with collaborations that may fend off their extinction. In a joint Chinese-South African project, tigers bred in Africa are being released into the wild in China. Some have already been successfully returned to the wild, where they have produced a new generation of wild tigers.
The threat to the tiger began over a century ago, with colonial trophy hunters. Today, although it is a protected species, controlling poaching and illegal trade in their prized pelts remains a major issue, since monitoring remote areas is a constant problem. Though the use of tiger body parts in Chinese medicine has been banned, they are still a sought after ingredient of traditional remedies.
While captive breeding has been generally successful, picking up the pieces is never as satisfactory as preventing the problem in the first place, and protecting wild tigers is a huge priority. Captive breeding means that the gene pool is much reduced and the hopes for the species ultimate re-establishment depend still on the wild tigers of remote forests and mountains of Asia.
We should also remember the many tigers in captivity in the United States, often living in less than optimum conditions in private zoos. Although a number of states have banned private ownership of tigers, the practice continues. One problem is that breeding by private collectors, including selection for white (albino) tigers, creates genetic problems for the animals themselves and hybridizes the gene pool.
Tiger conservationists and wildlife bodies have successfully raised awareness of the threat to the tiger. Now is the time for all of us to get involved and see what we can do to make sure these wonderful animals stay safe in the habitats they’ve roamed for thousands of years instead of waiting until it’s too late.