Feature: September 13, 1995
CAN WE SAVE THE TIGER?
Fewer than 6,000 of These Great Cats -- Princeton's Symbol
For More Than A Century -- Remain in the Wild, and Their
Numbers Are Shrinking Fast
BY ROBERT M. MCCLUNG '39
People and tigers. for thousands of years, visions of the great striped cat have fired the imaginations of men, women, and children everywhere. The tiger has always been a symbol of power and courage, a beautiful predator to be admired and feared.
When William Blake's famous poem (box, right) was published two centuries ago, the tiger's fortunes were burning brightly indeed. Today, however, the "tyger" that burned so bright for William Blake is in distress. As the late naturalist Gerald Durell observed, "The great beast has faded to a twinkle in the overgrazed forests of the night." The tiger continues to haunt the imaginations of people everywhere, but within a very few years the species may be snuffed out completely in the wild.
In Blake's time, the tiger (Panthera ti-gris) ranged across suitable habitat in Asia, from Turkey and the Caspian region westward to southeastern Siberia and Korea, and southward through China, India, and Southeast Asia to the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali. At the beginning of the 20th century perhaps 100,000 of them still roamed this vast territory. Today, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 remain. Princeton has more students than there are tigers in the wild.
Over the years, scientists have recognized eight subspecies of the big orange-and-black cats, based on subtle differences in size, color, markings, and other minor characteristics. These are the Bengal, Siberian, South China, Indo-Chinese, Sumatran, Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers. The last three are now considered extinct.
The last Bali tiger (P. t. balica), a victim of uncontrolled hunting, was killed in 1937. The Caspian tiger (P. t. virgata), which once ranged from eastern Turkey and the southern Caucasus into northern Iran and Afghanistan, was last recorded in Iran in 1959, and in Turkey in 1973. The Javan tiger (P. t. sondaica) had been reduced to a handful of survivors in eastern and southern Java by 1970. Six years later, these had dwindled to an estimated three to five lonely survivors, and the last reliable sighting occurred in 1983. In 1990, villagers reported finding tiger tracks and dung in the 190-square-mile Meru Betiri Game Preserve, in southeastern Java. Scientists of the World Wildlife Fund set up cameras connected to pressure pads along trails in the preserve to record any tigers passing that way. But to date, none have been captured on film.
Of the remaining five races, three-the Sumatran, Siberian, and South China tigers-cling to existence by the most slender of lifelines.
The Sumatran tiger (P. t. sumatrae) was abundant in the 1850s. In A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1856), Oliver Goldsmith recorded that the "number of people usually slain by these rapacious tyrants of the wild is most incredible . . . . Whole villages are sometimes depopulated by them." Fifty years later they were still abundant, as naturalist Richard Lydekker observed in The Royal Natural History (1893): "In parts of Java and Sumatra tigers absolutely swarm." Little wonder that villagers killed the big predator wherever and whenever they could. Today only a remnant population of Sumatran tigers-perhaps 400 to 500 individuals-survives in remote jungle areas. Nominally protected, they are still heavily hunted by poachers.
The South China tiger (P. t. amoyensis) once roamed through much of the Yangtze Valley and the Szechwan border region, southward through central and southern China. During the 1950s and '60s, it was actively hunted and killed in government programs to eliminate pests. As many as 3,000 tigers were reported to have been destroyed in these official campaigns. In 1956 alone, the People's Liberation Army is said to have killed more than 530 tigers and leopards. By the 1980s, only an estimated 100 South China tigers were left, and today fewer than 30 may remain.
The Siberian, or Amur, tiger (P. t. altaica) was one of the world's rarest animals a half century ago, with no more than an estimated two or three dozen remaining in the Soviet Far East. Once ranging over large forested areas of southeastern Siberia, Manchuria, northern China, and Korea, this race had long been a prime target for hunters. Largest of all the tigers, it has longer fur and is generally paler in color than its southern relatives. Big males sometimes measure 12 feet in length and weigh more than 700 pounds.
In the 1950s, when the Siberian tiger had almost reached the vanishing point, the Soviet Union belatedly instituted strict laws protecting it. The population slowly increased, and a 1969 census counted an estimated 150 tigers in Soviet territory. A few others survived in northeastern China and in neighboring Korea. By 1983 the population had climbed to perhaps 400. Then, with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, near-anarchy came to much of the Russian Far East. Desperate for foreign exchange, the territorial government sold logging rights in vast areas to international companies, and the great northern forests-prime habitat for tigers and other wildlife-began falling before the ax and saw.
While timber companies invaded the forests, poachers had a field day killing tigers and selling their skins and other parts to countries to the south. In the winter of 1993-94, an estimated 80 to 90 Siberian tigers were taken illegally. As few as 300 may now survive in the wild.
In 1989, a meeting between Dr. Maurice Hornocker, the director of the Idaho-based Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, and Russian wildlife biologists from the Soviet Academy of Sciences led to the formation of the cooperative Russian-American Siberian Tiger Project to observe, study, and protect the great cat. Hornocker, who had earned his doctorate from the University of Idaho in the 1960s with a detailed study of the American mountain lion, is recognized worldwide as a big-cat expert. He and Dr. Howard Quigley are codirectors of the Siberian Tiger Project. (Dr. Kathy Quigley, the study's veterinary coordinator, lectured on the Siberian tiger at an alumni forum during the 1994 Reunions. The forum was sponsored by the Princeton chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. For more on the chapter, see "Tigers Helping Tigers," page 19.)
The field studies of the Russian-American team have been conducted in the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve, part of a wilderness area north of Vladivostok known as Ussuriland. An estimated 25 tigers live in this reserve. Backed by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Exxon (whose symbol is the tiger), and the National Wildlife Federation, the Americans have brought new equipment and techniques to the project. Russian biologists had previously traced the movements of tigers simply by following their tracks in the snow. Today, biologists capture the tigers with loop snares, which don't harm them, then dart and anesthetize them to take blood and tissue samples. Finally, the tigers are fitted with radio collars so their movements can be tracked by a light plane. By the end of last winter, 12 tigers had been collared in this fashion.
Today, of the five races of tigers still extant, three (the Sumatran, Siberian, and South China) may total fewer than a thousand in the wild. The combined populations of the other surviving subspecies-the Indo-Chinese and the Bengal tiger-may be five times that many, but their numbers are shrinking fast.
The Indo-Chinese tiger (P. t. corbetti) ranges from Burma south through Thailand and the Malay Peninsula to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and extreme southern China. Portions of this range, especially the dense and nearly impenetrable jungles on the borders of northern Vietnam and Laos, are still largely unexplored by scientists. (In 1992 and 1994, two hitherto unknown species of large mammals-the sao la or Vu Quang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), and a giant forest deer (Megamuntiacus vuquangensis)-were found there, the first new species of large mammal discovered since the 1930s). Any estimate of tiger numbers in the region is mostly guess-work, but perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 Indo-Chinese tigers still roam its wild reaches. P. t. corbetti gets its scientific subspecific name from Jim Corbett, a legendary British hunter, conservationist, and author of the 1946 best-seller Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Corbett spent years tracking and killing man-eating tigers in the United Provinces of northwestern India.
The Bengal tiger (P. t. tigris), which once ranged across the Indian subcontinent from northwestern India and southern Nepal to the Irrawady Valley of Burma, is the most numerous surviving race. Both India and Bangladesh claim it as their national emblem. During the heydey of the British Empire, the Bengal tiger was the most prized quarry of Indian princes, British colonials, and trophy hunters from all over the world. In their 1993 book, Tiger-Wallahs: Encounters with the Men Who Tried to Save the Greatest of the Great Cats, Geoffrey and Diane Ward note that more than 100,000 tigers, most of them Bengals, may have been shot during the 19th century. By 1900 some 40,000 Bengals may still have remained, still plenty to sate the lust of wealthy sportsmen. In 1939, the king of Nepal killed 41 tigers during one hunt on his private reserve. And as recently as 1965, another maharajah wrote to naturalist George B. Schaller, confessing that "my bag of tigers is only 1,150." Besides being shot as trophies, Bengals were hunted from the earliest times because of their threat to humans and livestock. Since 1948, tigers have killed more than 800 people in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, the mangrove jungles at the delta of the Ganges River. A few villagers there and in India continue to fall prey to man-eaters.
Bengal tigers were still plentiful a half century ago, but since then their numbers have dwindled steadily. Alarmed by a 1972 census that counted only 1,827 left in India, the World Wildlife Fund spearheaded Operation Tiger, an effort to save the embattled species. As part of its own Project Tiger, the Indian government passed legislation and set up reserves to protect Bengals. Responding to these efforts, tiger numbers appeared to stabilize, then slowly increase. By 1983, a census counted more than 3,000 tigers in India, with perhaps an additional 400 in neighboring Nepal. In 1993, Indian officials celebrated the 20th anniversary of Project Tiger by announcing that their country's tiger population had increased to 4,300, but impartial experts regarded this number as padded for the benefit of corrupt bureaucrats. They pegged a more realistic total at 3,000.
A chief culprit was the loss of habitat, for India's burgeoning population had placed under siege its much-heralded system of national parks and reserves. (India's population is 900 million and still climbing, despite state birth-control programs. Indians account for 16 percent of the world's population but are squeezed onto just 2 percent of the world's land.) The situation in Ranthambhore National Park, a 287-square-mile reserve in the state of Rajasthan, is typical. When the government established it as a showcase of what Project Tiger could accomplish, 12 villages within the boundaries were relocated outside the park. Now, 20 years later, the park is ringed by 60 villages with a total population of 200,000. The villagers invade the park for firewood, and their 150,000 head of livestock overgraze its grasslands. The park's tigers have continued their decline: since 1980, habitat loss and poaching have probably halved their numbers, from 40 to 20.
Alarmed about the devastation at Ranthambhore, Valmik Thapar, a wealthy conservationist, took action. In 1987 he set up a foundation with a goal of winning the villagers' support for the park's tigers. The Ranthambhore Foundation introduced a new breed of milk cow, and organized health programs, handicraft workshops, and classes to teach children about the importance of the environment. It also educates villagers on the benefts of reforestation and maintains a nursery that supplies seedlings to replace trees cut down by villagers. The foundation is trying to develop the people's pride in the park and in "their" tigers, and to sell them on the economic benefits of ecotourism. Conservationists remain hopeful that the program will succeed and serve as a model for other Indian sanctuaries, but only time will tell.
Expanding human numbers threaten all asian wild-
life, but tigers face the added threat of poaching. A tiger's skin may sell for more than $3,000, and virtually every other part of the animal is prized in traditional oriental medicines and pharmaceuticals. According to the Wards, "The catalogue of physical ills which tiger bones and the elixers brewed from them are supposed to cure includes rheumatism, convulsions, scabies, boils, dysentery, ulcers, typhoid, malaria, even prolapse of the anus. Tiger remedies are also said to alleviate fright, nervousness, and possession by devils. Ground tiger bone scattered on the roof is believed to bar demons and end nightmares for those who sleep beneath it. A 'miraculous medicine' made from tiger bone and sold in Vietnam and elsewhere promises '6 love makings a night to give birth to four sons.' " Pulverized tiger bone, which sells for as much as $100 a pound on the illegal market, is used for making "tiger wine" and other cure-alls. And in Taiwan, a bowl of tiger-penis soup can fetch $320.
Because of its numbers, the Bengal tiger is the chief victim of this illegal trade. In 1993, after TRAFFIC USA, the trade-monitoring unit of the World Wildlife Fund, tipped off the Indian government to a major poaching operation, officials seized more than 600 pounds of tiger bone, worth about $625,000 on the underground market.
In an attempt to create a sustainable supply of tiger parts, officials of the People's Republic of China started a tiger-breeding farm near Beijing several years ago. The initial stock of Siberian tigers was purchased from American zoos. The operators predicted they would be able to raise 2,000 tigers in seven years, but the International Convention for Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) rejected their request for permission to sell their products on international markets.
Both the People's Republic and Taiwan pay lip service to attempts to stop or control the illegal trade, but tiger products are sold more or less openly in their markets. In April 1994, President Clinton imposed limited sanctions against Taiwan for its lack of progress in curbing the trade, but he side-stepped imposing any penalties against mainland China. The sanctions against Taiwan were the first instance of the United States imposing trade sanctions to protect endangered species since such action was authorized in 1978, but this response was probably too feeble and too late to help the tiger unless all members of CITES agree to impose sterner measures against countries violating the convention.
Tigers will survive in captivity, of course. today there are at least a thousand or more Siberian tigers, the most numerous zoo race, living and breeding in captivity on every continent-more than twice as many as there are in the wild-and the total number of tigers of all races in zoos may total more than 1,500. Some argue that zoo-bred tigers can be successfully reintroduced into the wild, but the problematic results of captive-breeding programs for the California condor and other endangered species suggest this would be difficult, if not impossible. Compounding any such efforts would be understandable concerns about releasing dangerous predators into areas where they can threaten humans. Another, greater uncertainty is how much, if any, habitat suitable for tigers will remain by early in the next century.
Despite the potential problems, a number of zoos are engaged in the high-tech breeding of tigers and other endangered wildlife. Much work has been done in embryo research with exotic cats at the Cincinnati Zoo. And in 1990, at the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, a Siberian tigress gave birth to three Bengal tiger cubs-the world's first big cats conceived by in-vitro fertilization and brought to term after embryo transfer. Biologists hope some day to be able to remove fertilized embryos from zoo creatures and transplant them to animals darted and anesthetized in the wild, thus reducing the dangers of inbreeding among shrinking populations.
Despite such efforts, the future of tigers in the wild remains bleak. The world's human population is constantly increasing, and the relentless pressure on the tiger's living space continues. Unless the trend is reversed, the tiger and countless other species will soon have nowhere to go except oblivion. Already, warns biologist Edward O. Wilson, "We are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction spasms of history." Cat specialist Peter Jackson, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, believes the tiger may become extinct in the wild by 2002.
Yet hope remains, and conservationists continue to do what they can. Last October, Congress authorized the spending of $50 million in behalf of the tiger and the rhinoceros, two animals particularly hard hit by the trade in endangered-species parts. A month later, delegates from the 122 countries that have ratified the CITES convention gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to debate measures to protect key wildlife species. At that meeting, nine Asian nations pledged their support for tiger rescue and conservation programs. At the same meeting, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the World Wildlife Fund pledged money and backing for these efforts. But the results of Congress's current budget-cutting mania do not augur well for endangered species.
Meanwhile, our own species continues to wage its deadly war of destruction against wildlife and the environment on every continent. The future of the tiger lies in the balance, but so too does the future of Homo sapiens and planet Earth.
Robert M. McClung '39, a writer living in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the author of Lost Wild America: the Story of Extinct and Vanishing Wildlife (revised and updated edition, Linnet Books, 1993). He is currently working on a book about endangered species throughout the world.