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Three new ideas in tiger conservation: Which will work?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Bengal tigerIt seems that no matter what governments and organizations do lately, tiger poaching continues to climb, driving the big cats closer and closer to extinction. But now two countries are resorting to extreme measures to help combat the dramatic decline in tiger populations, while a third is trying a new idea to boost its own tiger numbers.

Tigers vs. tourists?

Let’s start in India, where last month the country’s National Tiger Conservation Authority announced it would phase out all tiger tourism. The situation in India is particularly grim, as the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) population there has dropped from 3,600 to just 1,400 in the past eight years.

Most of this drop can be blamed on poachers and on the Indian government’s failure to protect its nation’s tigers. But India now also says that ecotourism is partially to blame, with hotels built on primary migration corridors and tour vehicles scaring away the tigers’ prey. Hundreds of thousands of people visit India each year with the hope of seeing a tiger in the wild.

So would a limitation on tiger tourism really help the tiger, or is it just India’s attempt at PR to cover up its shoddy record on tiger conservation? As Kevin Rushby points out at The Guardian‘s travel blog, India’s tiger tourism is poorly regulated, poorly managed and not much good for the tiger, but it does bring in money to help conserve the cats.

And in fact, after the tourism industry raised an uproar, India backed off on its initial announcement about banning tiger tourism, and is now saying that it will just be more strictly regulated, although no specifics have been announced.

Making the punishment fit the crime

There is no tiger tourism in neighboring Bangladesh. There just aren’t enough tigers to support ecotourism. The country has also lost more than half of its Bengal tigers in the last few years, with the population dropping from 440 in 2004 to an estimated 200 today. Lax punishments for poaching make the crime worth the risk of a $30 fine and two-year prison sentence. A poached tiger can fetch up to $50,000 on the black market, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization.

But a new law working its way through the Bangladeshi legislature could change that, making tiger poaching a crime punishable by life in prison. Tapan Kumar Dey, Bangladesh’s top conservation official, told the AFP news service, "We are now amending the law to fight poachers who have become increasingly sophisticated and are now often armed. They must be stopped."

Feed the tigers

Poaching and habitat loss have also been hard on the Amur or Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica), another tiger subspecies, which current population estimates place at as few as 300 animals in the wild. The Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working hard to increase the number by increasing the amount of prey in the tigers’ habitat. Their partner in the project is the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management, which, despite being hundreds of miles away from any tiger habitat, is helping to teach Russian land managers how to raise prey animals like deer and wild boar. More wild prey not only means more food for the tigers, it also helps to reduce tiger–human conflict because tigers won’t be tempted to kill domestic livestock, the WWF reports.

So will any of these ideas work? We can only hope. Worldwide tiger numbers are at an all-time low, and right now, every tiger counts.

Photo: Bengal tiger, via Wikipedia.

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  1. 1. Conundrum 12:49 pm 05/19/2010

    The first 2 "options" will more likely make things worse for tigers, not better. Private ownership is the key: It protects endangered species. From FFF.org: "In Kenya, where ivory sales are illegal, the population of elephants has declined over 70% in the last ten years (from 65,000 to 19,000). However, in Zimbabwe, where private ownership of elephants is allowed, elephant populations have increased from 30,000 to 43,000 in the last decade. "

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  2. 2. hotblack 1:23 pm 05/19/2010

    Shooting people would work.

    Come on, you know you want to…

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  3. 3. durbrow 1:24 pm 05/19/2010

    Some species are endangered because their organs are used in Chinese medicine. Such tissue could be grown in labs using stem cell technology at a far cheaper price than pouching. Unfortunately, stem cell research centers have soon little interest in this, at least in California.

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  4. 4. robert schmidt 4:12 pm 05/19/2010

    @durbrow, I appreciate what you are saying but I think there is a better use for that money than pandering to the ignorant, superstitious masses. I personally believe the world should stop trading with China until it gets its act in order. First World governments are salivating at the idea of getting access to the Chinese market so much that they have lost sight of their values. Western countries are hypocritical. We institute labor protection laws to protect ourselves from abuse but have no problem buying goods from countries that still allow slavery.

    This is not an isolated issue. Whether it is rhinos in africa, tigers in asia, child labor in asia and south america or women’s rights in the middle east, countries are violating the principals that we fought hard to secure for ourselves, and we are there shaking hands with them and giving them our money so we can buy some piece of shite at walmart for $1.99.
    If these governments are prostituting their people and resources then we are the Johns who are looking for a cheap piece of satisfaction. Time to change that. Until China cleans up its human rights abuses, transitions to a democratic government, complies with international endangered species treaties and many other international treaties it should be isolated.

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  5. 5. hawkeye 4:31 pm 05/19/2010

    Nah; lock ‘em up together with some of those privately owned tigers. It worked for the Romans.

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  6. 6. rrocklin 4:53 pm 05/20/2010

    You can list all the endangered species and habitats. But the real problem is too damn many people on the planet using too many resources. All environmentalists should support planned parenthood and other ways to reverse growth. The human species has become a plague on the planet.

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  7. 7. AnnieT 1:33 am 05/21/2010

    Agree. It amazes me that countries talk about measures to combat global warming at international conferences, but keep very quiet about population control. All teenagers should receive a surgical implant (I believe there is one available that releases hormones for 5 years), which is repeated until teh age of 25. Then if you want to have children, you should make application for a Permit and undergo a competency test. If they can do it for drivers, why not prospective parents? Much of child abuse and neglect is due to ignorance.

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  8. 8. wdbao 2:56 am 05/21/2010

    Saving tiger is the task of human beings on the earth, but it doesn’t have connection with social system like in China, just look back to the 1970s what happened in that isolated China you will understand why the wild animals are in poor condition now. Help China follows a right direction is the only way saving tiger and the earth. I did some field surveys on Amur tiger and its habitat, breeding preys of deer and wild boar is a practical way to increase the tiger population.

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  9. 9. sfreiman 6:41 am 05/21/2010

    I think you’re underestimating India’s interest in the protection of the Bengal tiger. The Sonderbans are an entire tiger reserve, where tourists never come close to actual tigers, and the inns are fairly primitive and located on clear areas which are not attractive to the tigers. One big problem there is that the tigers attack and kill villagers. The villagers go into the tiger areas in search of honey, and village women wash their clothes and draw water from streams where they are vulnerable to tiger attacks. But that’s a conflict between the tigers and the villagers, whose own condition is very close to bare subsistence. This is a very different problem from the conflict between tiger preservation and economic pressures, whether you’re talking of Western tourists or Chinese ignorance and demand for tiger organs.

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  10. 10. jefflev 12:32 pm 05/21/2010

    Amen to that!

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  11. 11. Ncalbuild 9:33 pm 05/21/2010

    Tiger poach vs tourism in the population decline
    while poaching may need stiffer laws to suit the crime.. the tourist traffic would indeed have an effect on the pray. If there is to much traffic, nature and society tend not to blend well, especially when aggressive animals are involved.
    Thus, My two cents would be. First, raise the bar on poaching penalties,
    turn the land into a conservation with laws to encourage re-population of the natural environment.
    Three, limit the amount of travel through or tourism of the land within the conservation areas.
    Best of luck with that.. have a wonderful day..=o)

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  12. 12. amitabhchaudhary2010 1:52 am 05/22/2010

    First of all we have to identify the ultimate sink of tiger demand and the people involved in the trade. Secondly Heavy punishment to the persons found guilty with life imprisonment and penalty 2 times the cost of tiger parts. Large scale companing for environment protection particularly at rural areas and local politicians. Mass awareness in school and colleges. Ban on wildlife tourism, animals in circus and zoos. People can watch only in TV and movies or through Google Earth live images if it is there.

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  13. 13. amitabhchaudhary2010 2:05 am 05/22/2010

    Mass compaigning against the poachers, Educating, life imprisionment and heavy penalty to the poarches. Government should be really serious. Identify the sink and the trade routes. Educating the people like Sansar Chand so they work for the good cause. Also ban on all wildlife tourism including tiger tousism. No animal in circus or zoos or private farm houses. only in movies recorded earlier or through Google earth live shows. Lastly but most important control human population on war scale, the real cause of all problems. If not preserve the semen and eggs or DNA of tiger species so that they can be rebuilt after their extinction.

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  14. 14. Cerebral*Origami 10:42 am 05/23/2010

    Simple: Feed the poachers to the tigers!
    Stake them out live with a camera running, put the results on the news, in the papers and on posters.
    Tigers get fed, caught poachers are disposed of and provide the rest of the poachers with some food for thought.

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  15. 15. Panthera 5:29 pm 05/27/2010

    Increasing tiger prey is definitely a major strategy to grow tiger numbers and protect the species as a whole. Overhunting of deer, wild pigs and other tiger prey leaves tigers (including tigresses providing for their cubs) with no food. This forces tigers to prey upon local livestock, which often leads to the hunting of tigers by farmers to prevent or in retaliation for loss of livestock.

    Organizations like Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization based in NYC, are working to address these kinds of threats. The Panthera-WCS Tigers Forever program is combating poaching by equipping park guards with training necessary to protect tiger reserves. The project also uses surveys to keep track of populations of tigers and their prey in order to carry out conservation work in the areas that need it most.

    A major tiger conservation solution not mentioned in the article is the concept of creating protected tiger ranges. Deforestation is one of the major threats facing tigers, and has caused this cat to lose 93% of their traditional range. Panthera’s Tiger Corridor Initiative is working to identify and create safe passageways for tigers (and their prey) to move between protected ranges occupied by humans. These corridors will allow tigers to cross regional and national borders to breed and ensure the survival of the tiger species.

    Learn more about these projects on Panthera’s tiger programs page at
    http://panthera.org/tiger_programs_projects.html.

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  16. 16. Chris Satter 2:23 am 05/31/2010

    One of the biggest problems is the way these national parks are managed. Park officials are paid very small wages and the job position has little status in the community. The park officials are easily bribed by local poacher’s who offer them more money to just look the other way than they would make in a month. The park rangers have family’s to feed and need to make money just like everybody else. The conservation organizations and government agencies need to first better educate the park staff on forest management and field ecology and conservation and second we need to pay these employes more money. This is the only way we can secure and protect these last remaining parks from poachers.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Chris Satter 2:25 am 05/31/2010

    One of the biggest problems is the way these national parks are managed. Park officials are paid very small wages and the job position has little status in the community. The park officials are easily bribed by local poacher’s who offer them more money to just look the other way than they would make in a month. The park rangers have family’s to feed and need to make money just like everybody else. The conservation organizations and government agencies need to first better educate the park staff on forest management and field ecology and conservation and second we need to pay these employes more money. This is the only way we can secure and protect these last remaining parks from poachers.

    Link to this

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