15 Nov 2010: Report

As Tigers Near Extinction,
A Last-Ditch Strategy Emerges

In the past century, populations of wild tigers have plummeted from 100,000 to 3,500. Now the World Bank and conservationists have launched an eleventh-hour effort to save this great predator, focusing on reining in the black market for tiger parts and ending the destruction of tiger habitat.

by caroline fraser

The most venerated predator on Earth, the tiger is also the most vulnerable, described in a recent World Bank document as “enforcement-dependent.” The phrase is borrowed from the medical world, where patients reliant on blood products are known as “transfusion-dependent.” Saved only by scarce conservation dollars and thin ranks of poorly equipped park guards, the tiger’s hold on life is tenuous. Without future infusions of expensive, well-coordinated, state-of-the-art life-support, Panthera tigris is doomed in the wild.

Now, in one of the most high-profile conservation interventions in recent memory, the World Bank is stepping in to try to secure that life support. At a meeting later this month, the bank's president, Robert Zoellick, will seek approval from the leaders of 13 tiger range countries for an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the world’s few remaining tigers and their habitat. At the same time, a group of leading tiger scientists and conservationists is lobbying for a similar effort to protect the tiger’s last remaining breeding populations.

Tiger Recovery Efforts World Bank
Paul Kline Photography/iStockphoto
The World Bank’s tiger recovery program aims to double tiger populations in the wild by 2022.
The tiger’s situation has grown desperate in a mere century. A hundred years ago, there were over 100,000 in the wild, with more than 40,000 in India alone. Currently, the total number of tigers worldwide is calculated at fewer than 3,500. Three subspecies — Javan, Bali, and Caspian tigers — vanished during the 20th century. A fourth, the South China tiger, has not been seen in the wild for more than 25 years and is assumed to have gone extinct during the 1990s.

Remaining populations — including 1,850 Bengal tigers and a few hundred each of the Siberian, Indochinese, Malayan, and Sumatran subspecies — are pressed into tiny, isolated protected areas comprising less than 7 percent of their former range. Found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, the Bengal tiger possesses the highest genetic variation, and is considered the key to the species’ survival.

Blocking tiger recovery efforts in India and elsewhere is the black market in the animal’s body parts. Although the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies cooperated with conservation efforts by removing tiger bone
Tiger is occasionally served in restaurants in Hanoi and Beijing, where rare dishes denote status.
from their pharmacopeia in 1993, skins still sell for up to $35,000, and organs and body parts — bones, whiskers, eyeballs, penises, paws, claws — are snapped up as souvenirs or ingredients of traditional Asian medicine. Tiger is occasionally served at restaurants in Hanoi and Beijing, where rare dishes denote high status. In Russia, the uber-wealthy have acquired a taste for tiger pelts as home décor; in Sumatra, magic spells require tiger parts.

Potential profits are so corrupting that criminal entrepreneurs in China raise captive tigers in cages, eventually slaughtering the animals for their body parts, skin, and bones, which are boiled to make a medicinal “tiger wine.” Legalizing tiger “farming” has been proposed by the Chinese government as a solution to the illegal trade, to drive down prices. The move has been strongly opposed by the World Bank and trafficking experts. A recent Conservation Biology study points out that consumers say they want wild tiger parts, not farmed ones.

Tigers lucky enough to escape the poachers face being shot or poisoned by villagers angered by livestock losses. Starvation in the wild presents another peril: Prey depletion and habitat degradation are eroding the species’ future. A breeding female Bengal tiger needs two deer a week, an Amur tiger more than 20 pounds of meat a day to make it through the winter. Because of these threats and the tiger’s rapid decline, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, arbiter of the authoritative “Red List” of endangered species, is considering changing its status from “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered.” That’s the last stop before the bitter end: “Extinct in the Wild,” and, ultimately, “Extinct.”



So countries and conservation organizations are urgently rallying to save the tiger, but their efforts are shadowed by the fact that the species has been “saved” before. Early in the 1970s, the tiger population in India fell to a similarly alarming level, below 2,000. President Indira Gandhi backed what may have been the most comprehensive single-species conservation plan of its time: Project Tiger, a system of dedicated national reserves supported by teams of rangers. Tiger numbers doubled over the next 15 years.

But after Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the reserves fell victim to mismanagement, corruption, and neglect, and India’s rapidly growing economy sparked a massive expansion of infrastructure as cities ballooned, roads and highways were built, and hydropower and mining
The level of assault on natural areas [in Asia] is unprecedented in human history.”
projects were launched to boost power production. For tigers, this was bad news. John Seidensticker, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo who has been working on these issues for decades, describes development across Asia as devastating for wildlife, particularly for the large, connected landscapes necessary for big cats. “Roads are horrible ecological traps for tigers,” he said. “The level of assault on natural areas [in Asia] is unprecedented in human history. Tigers need big areas. That’s where the rub is.”

China’s economy took off as well, and millions of new consumers were able to buy wildlife products flooding the market. Having eaten its way through its own tigers, China turned to India, where poachers went after tigers in reserves. The scandal broke in 2005, with news reports saying that India’s wildlife officials had been cooking the books — it turned out that in one of India’s most renowned tiger reserves, Sariska in Rajasthan, poachers had extirpated the entire tiger population. Last year, news came that another reserve, Panna, had also lost its tigers.



India’s crisis served one purpose: It triggered a global re-evaluation of tiger conservation at the highest levels, and a new and unlikely defender of the species appeared on the scene, Zoellick of the World Bank. Formerly a managing director at Goldman Sachs, Zoellick quickly allied himself with Carter Roberts, president of WWF. Since his appointment in 2007, Zoellick has sought to make conservation a centerpiece of World Bank policy and tigers his personal priority. His office is dominated by a map depicting shrinking tiger habitat since 1850.

Under his direction, the World Bank commissioned a 2008 study and, together with the Smithsonian, the Global Environment Facility (funding mechanism for much international conservation), and international NGOs, launched the Global Tiger Initiative in 2009. The bank possesses “convening power” among its 187 member countries and began organizing international workshops that culminated in an unprecedented plan to gather together world leaders of all tiger range countries. The Tiger Summit will be held on Nov. 21, during the waning days of this Year of the Tiger, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Such political capital expended on a conservation issue is unprecedented. For the first time in history, one of the world’s top financiers has galvanized worldwide support in defense of an endangered species.

The leaders are expected to issue a declaration endorsing the bank’s Global Tiger Recovery Program, which aims to double tiger numbers in the wild by 2022; restore and reconnect tiger habitat across borders and on a landscape level; bring illegal trafficking under control through improved compensation and community programs, better enforcement, and
Tiger landscapes function as critically important watersheds serving 832 million people.
educational campaigns; and develop long-term financing schemes to pay for it all. The draft document outlining the program is a manifesto for a new paradigm of conservation, seeking to counter the notion that this might be another single-species conservation project. The program seeks to protect the tiger as the apex predator in its ecosystem and as an emblem of all biodiversity in that system. Protection of the tiger, it states, entails protection of tiger landscapes, which also function as critically important watersheds serving 832 million people. Conservation, the program’s author’s insist, “is no longer a fringe concern.”

Poaching continues to pose a seemingly insurmountable problem. Losses of 2 percent a year threaten the tiger with immediate extinction, according to John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Scanlon admitted that his chief of enforcement “feels extraordinarily frustrated” in being unable to penetrate the criminal circles that perpetuate tiger smuggling. At CITES’ international meeting in March, China and India argued against a proposed resolution requiring more detailed reporting on incidents of tiger poaching, with China claiming that CITES’ compliance measures set a “dangerous” precedent. While a revised resolution passed, it exposed China’s reluctance to grapple with its role in consuming tigers.

Critics have also pointed out that the World Bank itself has a checkered history when it comes to conservation projects, particularly in India. A young Indian biologist, Ghazala Shahabuddin, did an in-depth study of a $67 million World Bank-sponsored tiger recovery project in India from 1994-2004. It “failed visibly,” Shahabuddin writes, largely due to an inability to engender the enthusiastic participation of local people.

Renowned tiger biologist K. Ullas Karanth, who works with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), called the earlier initiative a thinly veiled method for the World Bank to troll for profitable lending
Critics point out the World Bank has a checkered history when it comes to conservation projects.
opportunities in India and China while “simultaneously green-washing its warty environmental visage.” At the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karanth said that consultants made away with much of the money as 12,000 timber trees were smuggled from the reserve and tiger and elephant poaching rose. “Despite huge investments,” he concluded, the Bank’s project “damage[d] wildlife and habitats without increasing local community support.”

The World Bank’s plan — aimed at governments — has also triggered competitive jockeying in the nonprofit world, which will undoubtedly end up implementing much of it. A recent PloS Biology article — “Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink — The Six Percent Solution,” authored by specialists from the WCS and other organizations — proposed a different approach. It argued that the international community should focus resources on 42 “source sites” that contain nearly 70 percent of the world’s tigers and cover just 6 percent of their former range, “to ensure that the last remaining breeding populations are protected and continuously monitored.” The publication of the paper underlined how many parties are competing to be heard and how unclear the lines of authority, enforcement, and coordination may be.

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The most radical overarching goal of the World Bank’s tiger recovery plan seems to concern the future of global conservation as much as tigers. The clear implication of the Tiger Summit is that nations must begin to take responsibility for conservation and not leave it to a ragtag, uncoordinated network of overlapping UN-funded programs and non-profit organizations. The idea of pressing countries to “mainstream” conservation — recognizing the economic value of such ecosystem services as carbon sequestration, fresh water, and flood control — is increasingly gaining traction at the international level.

An essential part of the equation will be wildlife. With radical reappraisals of ecosystem economics under way, Zoellick and the bank hope to tweak carbon schemes such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to place value on tigers. One of the fears surrounding these schemes has been that they may encourage the proliferation of “empty” forests, protecting standing timber while habitat is stripped of wildlife. In response, the World Bank has developed a Wildlife Premium Market Initiative, which could be attached to REDD and would pay higher benefits, in the form of carbon payments, to participating countries. In return, those countries would be required to monitor and verify tiger numbers. “We want to ensure that the mechanisms to protect ecosystems such as forests do not leave them silent,” Zoellick said, “without the roar of the tiger or the elephant’s trumpet.”

POSTED ON 15 Nov 2010 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Energy Forests Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Asia 

COMMENTS


I hope that all interested parties can come together for the welfare of the tigers. Please put aside politics and greed. Without these magnificent animals living in their natural habitat our world would suffer a mighty loss.

Posted by Ann Breeden on 15 Nov 2010


One thing that is forgotten in the endless discussions and reviews is the caliber of the men manning the wildlife reserves. What we need is a team of officials in each tiger reserve manned by men with that burning desire to protect. Do we have such dedicated teams in our tiger reserves? Unfortunately, no. What we have is a few dedicated individuals here and there. This needs to be changed on a war footing.

We have to handpick promising young guys from raw recruits and give them intensive training. Their training has to be rigorous on par with commando training. Services of social scientists also have to drafted for training. The men have to be adept in building bridges with local communities. This plays a very important role in intelligence gathering also. The men have to be trained in appropriate modern methodologies of intelligence gathering. The pay and perks of the men also have to be perked up. In many areas people at the bottom of the echelon gets meager pay which makes their life a humdrum hand to mouth existence. This needs to be changed pronto. Make jobs in the tiger reserves attractive.

Political interference has to be shown the way out. In Periyar Tiger Reserve, one of India's best tiger reserves rampant political interference in the day to day affairs of the park has sapped the morale of the men.

Carefully moulded human resources should be the bedrock on which we build other edifices.

Posted by Mohan Alembath on 16 Nov 2010


This is an excellent but depressing look at one small part of our world, one of the many species with which we share the planet.

It is no coincidence that the decline in the tiger population over the last 100 years is nearly the inverse of the growth in our own numbers. In 1900 there were 1.6 billion humans; today there are about 6.9 billion, an unprecedented spurt of growth for an species.

The tigers, of course, are so beautiful that the thought of their extinction would be unthinkable. But think again. With the rapid growth of our population, extinction rates for other species have steadily increased. Some biologists estimate that today's extinction rate may be as much as 1,000 times the "background" extinction rate, and we deserve much of the credit.

We need to save more than just tigers. A good start would be to bring our own growth rate down to zero, or even less. Otherwise, we are edging toward a world in which only we, our pets, and the animals that we eat will be all that passes for "wildlife."

Posted by Gary Peters on 16 Nov 2010


Excellent article. In addition to tiger poaching, another key factor is illegal and unsustainable logging in tiger habitats such as the Russian Far East and Sumatra, home to some of these last remaining tiger populations.

Increasing global demand for inexpensive wood and paper products from Asia, combined with corruption and lack of government law enforcement for forest protection in those regions, is driving unprecedented loss of forested tiger habitat and increased human-tiger conflicts in these regions.

What can U.S. companies and consumers do to help? Ask questions about the wood and paper products you buy. Especially hardwood furniture and flooring from China (which could come from Amur tiger habitat in eastern Russia just across the Chinese border), and paper from Asia (which could come from last remaining Sumatran tiger habitat in Indonesia). Specifically, ask for Forest Stewardship Council-certified products and look for the FSC label. FSC is an independent certification system for forests and products that ensures that environmental and social factors in those forests are protected.

Posted by Linda Kramme on 19 Nov 2010


Greg Harrison is a top avian veterinarian who sells an organic soy based bird food worldwide. About decade ago, I worked with him on a point of purchase booklet for parrot owners. When it was published, it changed the way the industry talked about feeding parrots because suddenly people were starting to look at all the things it took to keep such a long lived creature healthy.

All the previous bird food research had been done with chickens. Their lifespans are about six months. In the wild, large parrots can survive six or seven decades. Conveniently enough, in captivity, they live about as long as a large (grain fed) dog. So not only were avian vets striving to educate themselves, they were working on changing the perspectives of their clients. Marketing research showed that people chose bird foods that were brightly colored like breakfast cereals because that was familiar to them. Birds didn't have a preference. They ate what their parents taught them to eat.

The National Geographic had just featured a macaw in flight on the cover. It was from the Tambopata Research Center in Peru. Researchers were climbing trees and examining the contents of baby macaws' crops to see what their parents were feeding them. The study revealed a large percentage of baby macaws were starving on what their parents could find in the dwindling rainforest.

Researchers handfed some of the siblings on Harrison's Bird Food. Even after they were grown, they came back for handouts. That told them something about the available resources, but it also shed light on the relationship between parents and their young. Macaws supplement an adolescent's diet for a year as its learning to survive. Macaws who ate acidic nuts during the dry the season also dined on handfuls of clay at the riverbank to protect their stomachs much the same way humans take an antacid.

Back in the corporate America, this was about the time Petco stopped selling big parrots because they're so high maintenance.

I don't see how you're going to get humans to care about what they don't understand without showing them how to focus on what's real.

I was disappointed to learn that if eco-tourism doesn't do the trick, ranching parrots is one of the answers they're looking towards to sustain them in the future.

Posted by Beth Martell on 30 Nov 2010


A report of the Wildlife Protection Society of India states "The following figures represent only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in tiger parts in India. The details below are compiled from reports received by WPSI from enforcement authorities, work carried out by WPSI, and other sources.

To date, WPSI has documented the following cases:

95 cases of tigers known to have been killed in 1994
121 tigers killed in 1995
52 tigers killed in 1996
88 tigers killed in 1997
39 tigers killed in 1998
81 tigers killed in 1999
52 tigers killed in 2000
72 tigers killed in 2001
46 tigers killed in 2002
38 tigers killed in 2003
38 tigers killed in 2004
46 tigers killed in 2005
37 tigers killed in 2006
27 tigers killed in 2007
29 tigers killed in 2008
32 tigers killed in 2009


WPSI also has records of a large number of tigers that were "found dead". Without verification of poaching evidence these deaths have not been included in the above figures. To reach an estimate of the magnitude of the poaching of tigers in India, it may be interesting to note that the Customs authorities multiply known offences by ten to estimate the size of an illegal trade."

The above detected cases work out to 893 tigers killed in ten years or 89 a year;if customs estimate that detected case form only 10% of the actual illegal trade[wildlife trade is much more difficult to detect]is applied,the number of tigers killed in illegal trade could be over 800 each year!; what should be the total breeding population to support such a heavy harvest; it cannot be the 1850 reported in the tiger census. Either the population is very much larger than estimated or the poaching figures are exaggerated like the figure of 40,000 tigers hundred years back. Tiger is a very secretive animal and the Chinese proverb 'for every tiger you see, ten tigers would have seen you' is the truth.

A lot of time and money is spent on this futile game of numbers; assessing the extent of territory occupied can be done more accurately and with less effort and expense for a secretive territorial animal like the tiger And all the investment could be on economic development of the villagers living in and around tiger areas.

Posted by RKRAO on 05 Dec 2010


'A hundred years ago, there were over 100,000 in the wild, with more than 40,000 in India alone.' writes the author of this article;where from did she get this figure and did she check its authenticity? Why is there no response from the author or the very vocal and articulate conservation community on my above comments of 5th dec?

Posted by RKRAO on 03 Feb 2011


People need to start realizing how much we all depend on those beautiful creatures, not only us but other species too, get rid of one animal in the food chain and EVERYTHING gets affected. We should stop destroying there habitat because its there home too.

Posted by Victoria Ramirez on 11 Oct 2011


Did you hear about 18 bengal tigers killed by ohio police in usa after they were let loose by their owner oct 19th 2011?

Posted by joe crivaro on 20 Oct 2011


I agree with everyone. Tigers are a sacred part of nature if they fall we fall to.

Posted by cassie penner on 12 Apr 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
caroline fraserABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Fraser traveled on six continents to write Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution. She has written widely about animal rights, natural history, and the environment, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Outside magazine, among others. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, she wrote about the strategy of “rewilding” and interviewed conservation biologist Daniel Janzen.
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