It 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.