A New Strategy for Saving The World’s Wild Big Cats

Populations of many of the world’s wild cats are plummeting, with the number of tigers falling to roughly 3,200. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Alan Rabinowitz, a leading wild cat biologist, lays out a vision of how populations of these magnificent creatures can be brought back from the brink.

For more than three decades, Alan Rabinowitz has studied tigers, jaguars, and other wild cats in some of the world’s most remote regions. But working for years at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Rabinowitz did far more than research these great animals — he helped create parks and preserves to protect wild cats, including the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize and a network of protected areas for tigers in the authoritarian nation of Myanmar.

For the past two years, Rabinowitz has been the CEO and president of the conservation group, Panthera, which has the lofty goal of saving wild cat species across all their ranges worldwide. Hiring some of the world’s most respected wildlife biologists and wild cat specialists, Panthera is working with other conservation groups and with governments to develop and implement tiger-recovery strategies and to create a jaguar corridor across much of South and Central America, protected areas for snow leopards in the Himalayas, and a network of linked refuges and corridors for lions across parts of Africa.

Rabinowitz — in an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor

Julie Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society
Alan Rabinowitz

Fen Montaigne — says plenty of habitat still exists to increase populations of some wild felines, such as tigers, ten-fold. The key, he says, is for conservation groups to be held fully accountable for their work and to commit to reviving wild cat numbers by carefully studying existing populations, working with governments to crack down on illegal hunting and other threats, and developing scientifically-sound programs for recovery. “The ball has to stop somewhere,” says Rabinowitz, “and I think it has to stop with the international conservation community.”

Rabinowitz is certain of something else: None of the planet’s wild cat species should be allowed to go extinct. “The world,” he says, “will absolutely be a much, much poorer — and, I believe, unhealthier — place with the loss of any of the world’s great cats.”

Yale Environment 360: I read the astonishing figure recently that tigers in the wild, throughout the whole world, [number] roughly 3,500. How has this situation come to pass?

Alan Rabinowitz: Well unfortunately, I would say 3,500 right now is being a bit optimistic. I’d say it was closer to 2,500 to 3,000 maybe left in the wild — with thousands upon thousands in captivity, which is an unfortunate number. This has not come to pass slowly. I actually believe that the conservation community is to a fairly large part to blame for why the tiger is in its current situation and more is not being done.

The tiger is in desperate shape — the worst shape of any of the great cats. It’s the biggest cat in the world. It’s probably one of the most iconic species on the planet, [but] it’s left roaming approximately 5 to 7 percent of its historic habitat.

How did we get to this? Well there are many reasons, but the primary cause of tiger death — like many of the big cats — is people killing tigers themselves and people killing tiger food. Many of the people who live in tiger habitat kill much of what tigers need to survive. Tigers need big prey.

Now those same animals that the tiger needs to survive, people often hunt for food, for trade in the marketplace, for money. Another big cause of tiger decline is loss of habitat, but frankly, even with the loss of habitat, the current existing potential tiger habitat could hold probably up to 30,000 tigers right now at reasonable densities…

The reason why the situation is so bad for tigers, versus other big cats, is because they’re driven by a trade that no other big cat currently is involved in to that same extent, and that’s the Chinese medicine trade.

There is and has been for centuries a demand by Asian traditional medicine — not just the Chinese by the way, but that’s the biggest trade — for big cat parts and bones. It is not driven by the concept of an aphrodisiac, as many people think. It’s mostly been used for other kinds of things that Western medicine generally hasn’t been able to address, like joint complaints, rheumatoid arthritis. Now as the Chinese economy has boomed, more people could afford it and there’s been more demand. And that has driven tiger numbers very, very low, because if you’re a poor local person in a place like Myanmar or India, or even Thailand, killing one tiger could basically change your life. It could give your daughter a dowry; it could buy you a marketplace in a local village. It’s basically a pot of gold for a local person. The issue is how do we turn that around.

e360: When you look at tigers around the world, relatively healthy populations exist in what pockets now?

Rabinowitz: There are landscapes where we might think there are a few hundred left, but that’s actually a bit different from even saying it’s a healthy population. In fact, all of them are in steep decline. In the Russian Far East, in a large contiguous landscape, we have several hundred tigers left, but our recent data shows that that population is in steep decline.

On Sumatra, probably several hundred [are] left over the entire island. We’re dealing with only a relatively small island, lots of people, lots of habitat degradation, and whether that population is going to be able to be maintained at current levels is a big, big question mark. Tiger numbers are dropping precipitously.

e360: Is that in some measure due to palm oil plantations?

Rabinowitz: In Sumatra, hunting has been a big problem, but I’d say the greatest current threat is deforestation that’s contributed by factors such as palm oil plantations.

Other populations, which are actually contiguous populations with over a hundred tigers, there aren’t many out there. Possibly Bangladesh. India has always been held up as the country with the most tigers, but all of its tiger populations are highly fragmented with no single population actually being that large.

The loss of habitat, food and a demand for their parts and bones in the Chinese medicine trade has made the tiger the world’s most threatened big cat.

We’re dropping the ball — “we” meaning the international conservation community. We are not properly measuring what we’re starting out with, where the best core tiger areas are, and putting money towards these core sites and staying on top of mitigating critical threats. Panthera started a program four years ago now, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, called Tigers Forever. The point of that program was to pick some key tiger sites where through years on the ground, we knew we had control of those sites, control meaning we had the ears of the government, we had community buy-in. At those key sites, we would set up models where we put as much money as they felt they needed to mitigate criminal threats within an area they felt they could control. All signs three years later are that that program has been a huge success.

e360: Tell me about a few of the sites that have worked.

Rabinowitz: In Thailand, a place called Huai Kha Khaeng, which is on the Thai-Burmese border, [where] actual tiger numbers have increased. Now I was in that area more than 20 years ago and I thought tigers would be wiped out. That situation has been completely turned around, partly through the efforts of the Thai government and now through the strategic monitoring and measuring of the Tigers Forever program. It is considered by the Thai government to be the best protected area in all of Thailand, and it’s now a model for Thailand.

In the Western Ghats [in India], we’re actually documenting young dispersing males leaving the good, well protected site of Nagarahole. That was a good core site prior to Tigers Forever and now [tigers are] spreading out and they’re able to re-inhabit and start new, better core populations.

If there is anybody who’s held accountable for decreasing tiger numbers… it is us.”

In Burma, where I was working and we set up the world’s largest tiger reserve, a place called Hukawng Valley, it had horrible threats… Within the last three years, we have not noticeably been able to bring back tiger numbers, but three years is too short a time to really tell over a huge landscape if tiger numbers are coming back. What we have seen is the amount of poaching has gone way, way down. Guns have been confiscated, people are not hunting as much anymore, marketplaces selling wild meat have all been shut down and people are seeing tiger tracks. Prey has come back.

In all of the tiger range countries, there are pretty good laws in place that if they were enforced, we probably wouldn’t have nearly the situation we do with tigers. Most of the time the government wants to enforce, but it’s not a big priority. It’s very interesting because I’ve never met a head of state that will say, “We don’t care about our big cats. Look, development comes first, my people come first. If that means all the tigers are gone, so be it.” What they will say is, “Of course we want to save our tigers. Our tigers are part of our natural heritage. If you can show us a way where we could save our tigers and yet people benefit, we can develop the country as we need to develop, then we are willing to listen.”

This is where I think the international conservation community has fallen short — in taking that opportunity and moving from there because the international conservation community, especially with the agenda of tigers, has not come together. They’ve done everything but. They are all fighting for their own piece of the donor pie. They all want to put their own name to what kind of agenda they are doing.

The problem is it takes intensive work and monitoring and accountability, and most organizations and people don’t want to be held accountable. They want to say, “Look, we did great things, we trained a hundred teachers, we trained a hundred tiger guards, we have put millions of dollars into tiger range countries, don’t blame us if the tiger is still going downhill.” That’s crap.

The ball has to stop somewhere and I think it stops with the international conservation community. If there’s any watchdog out there, it should be us, and if there is anybody who’s held accountable for decreasing tiger numbers and eventually possible tiger extirpation on this world, it is us as the international conservation community. We are taking people’s money and we’re saying we will help tigers, and it’s not like trying to figure out how to land a human being on Saturn. We know how to save tigers. We know how to turn tiger numbers around.

e360: And your protocol is basically to study what’s there, secure the core habitat with greater enforcement?

Rabinowitz: First of all, do what’s called a critical threats assessment. You go into an area that is known to have a good tiger population or a potential tiger breeding population. You can estimate how many tigers are there — there’s now camera trapping, occupancy surveys, track surveys. You can estimate how many tigers could potentially be there based on what size of the protected habitat is existing, what’s stopping the number of tigers from being there that could be there. That’s the critical threats assessment.

You focus in on what needs to be done as you measure and monitor that what you are doing is having impact. So say we know that [in Myanmar] we have to try to get at the Lisu, [and stop] hunting. You know they’re one of our biggest problems because there it is so embedded in their tradition.

“The only way you can bring [tigers] back is find out who those last organized tiger hunters are.”

There are certain people where the only thing that works, at least for the short term, is strict enforcement, so with the Lisu we have had to bring in the Burmese police. We have had to bring in the forest guards and say, “We’re watching you. We know it’s part of your tradition to be killing tigers, but it’s not a tradition which you need or really have any justification for. There are so few tigers left, you’ll be down to nothing anyway if you continue your tradition.“ And actually they acknowledge that. But a few of them still go out and do it.

The only way you can bring [tigers] back is find out who those last organized tiger hunters are. We’re dealing with less than 3,000 tigers left in the world and there are people out there who don’t give a damn because them getting a tiger is going to mean a lot more money in their pocket. I don’t blame them, but the way we counter it, in some cases, is simply hardcore enforcement. We confiscate their weapons, we arrest them, we do whatever has to be done to save the last tigers in that area.

e360: How would you characterize the state of African lions today and what are you doing to try and increase numbers?

Rabinowitz: Well the state of African lions is not as great as people might think because people watch all these beautiful shows on Animal Planet and Discovery, great footage of lion prides, and in actual fact it’s only a few places in the world where that kind of footage can be taken. The African lion, our second-largest cat in the world, is actually down to occupying less than about 20 percent of its historic habitat.

Now a lot of good people are out there studying lions. Unfortunately, the lion arena has always been a very shotgun type approach. So you have people working in Tanzania. You have people working on lions in Kenya. You have people working in South Africa, in Botswana. They’re all different groups of people capturing, radio collaring, studying lion-human interaction and, it’s never been brought together under one umbrella. Again, that’s been one of the major failings of conservation is all of these good people, good projects, usually good agendas working in isolation from one another.

Panthera has attempted to step back and say let’s look at what is going on range-wide with each of these cats. We want to be kind of a think tank. We try to bring on all the best minds in cat biology and cat conservation in the world.

“There will always be some conflict and interaction, but generally people and animals can live together.”

With lions, it’s been assumed that the lion range is so broken up that basically the best you could do is study the world’s major six to eight lion populations and try to save them as these disjunct populations. Again, we’re looking beyond just where the core populations are, out into the human landscape where these lions are coming, which, by traditional conservation thinking, has always been kind of the black hole. Unless we figure out a way that these big cats live within the human landscape, live with people or at least get to move through those human landscapes to the next protected area, then we’re going to lose all our big cats eventually because all we’ll end up having are disjunct populations, bio-zoos of a sort.

So what we’ve done with the lion is we’ve looked at the whole range. We’ve looked at the fact, known good populations of lions could be looked at, maybe instead of eight disjunct populations, three to four meta-populations. We can actually look to genetically combine a lot of these populations by working with local people and protecting landscapes between populations, outside of the protected areas.

e360: Tell me briefly the state of jaguar populations.

Rabinowitz: Well, fortunately, jaguars are in a better state than either lions or tigers. As good of a state as they are in — meaning that they’re threatened more than really endangered right now — they are still occupying only approximately 48 to 50 percent of their historic habitat. However, through our research, we’re finding that they’re actually ranging over and potentially still using up to 80 percent of their historic habitat, in terms of genetic corridors.

I grew up in traditional wildlife conservation, meaning the traditional paradigm was go find a good population. If it’s not in a protected area, get the area protected. Once you set up a protected area, where hopefully people are outside and the animals inside, your job is done. But now the whole paradigm has shifted because we know that with the large predators, that genetically if we relegate them to isolated, disjunct populations, even if they’re in pretty damn big areas with good, large landscapes, the future doesn’t look very bright because there needs to be genetic connectivity. There needs to be mixing.

When cats have good core areas where they can come from or go to, where they have abundant food, then outside those areas, they can mix into the human landscape in limited numbers. Yes, there will always be some conflict and some interaction, but generally people and animals can live together. With the jaguar corridor, we’re actually getting heads of state to sign papers saying they support the jaguar corridor in principle. When we get a government backing the jaguar corridor, we can then put that corridor into the land use policy and planning system of that country. So say that Costa Rica wants to build a new dam or a big four-lane highway, they need, just like most countries, to do an environmental impact statement. They go to their computers and boom, it pops up that they’re inside of a jaguar corridor. Now it doesn’t stop them necessarily. They then come to us or to the jaguar group in that country, and say, “It’s right in your jaguar corridor, what can we do?”

e360: So you’re basically saying, that even as we’re moving towards a world with nine billion people, that with smart and aggressive conservation there will still be enough wild lands and corridors and areas of mixed use that you can not only preserve what you have now [but expand wildcat populations]?

Rabinowitz: Absolutely, no doubt about it. People say that at the beginning of the 1900s there were perhaps as many as a hundred thousand tigers in the world, which might or might not be true. Now we’re down to 3,000. My objective is not to try to get back to 100,000 tigers because that’s just an unrealistic projection, but working within existing human landscapes, working within existing protected areas, we could be having maybe twenty to thirty thousand tigers.

But the conservation community has to be more accountable. With the Tigers Forever program, we have made a biological commitment, which was determined by the scientists at the tiger sites we chose, that we will increase tigers at those sites overall by a minimum of 50 percent over the next 10 years, and that’s based in science. And we’re going to put the money towards that. If that doesn’t happen, I won’t blame politics, I won’t blame anything. It will be our fault. It will be my fault.

e360: As someone who’s worked with big cats for decades, what is the moral or spiritual significance of making sure that tigers remain on Earth?

Rabinowitz: Spiritually I feel very strongly about the tigers. I think you can drop me off any place in the world and I can tell you if the big cats are around me or not. I have been face to face with wild lions, with wild jaguars, and there is a real energy emanating from them. I’ve been in jungle and watched as big cats move through the jungle and hear all of the animals go silent as the big predator moves through it. The energy in a jungle with big predators is a very, very different energy, and when you truly merge with it and feel it, it’s not a dangerous energy. It’s not a negative energy — completely the opposite. It’s this huge, positive, overwhelming force which humbles you, makes you realize that there are things much greater on the Earth than you.