The global wild tiger population has fallen from hundreds of thousands to a mere 3,890. Conservationists now face a tough decision: save existing populations or try a reintroduction programme that, while risky, could see the big cats roam Central Asia for the first time in 50 years. James Parry investigates
Powerful, beautiful, mysterious. Is there any creature as compelling as a tiger? British poet William Blake clearly thought not. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,” he wrote, “In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Blake’s famous poem was published in 1794, when hundreds of thousands of tigers prowled from eastern Turkey through the Caucasus, Persia, India and south-east Asia as far as China and the far east of Russia. Feared and admired in equal measure, these apex predators – bigger even than the lions with which they once shared the western and central parts of their range – historically played a paramount role in folklore, popular culture and the decorative arts.
From the 5,000-year-old rock carvings of tigers in the Helan Mountains of Inner Mongolia to the tiger mosaics adorning the façade of the 17th-century Sher-Dor Madrasah in Samarkand and the tigers that dominate the present-day coat of arms of Malaysia, the king of the cats has exerted a talismanic influence over mankind. Human leaders have often sought to project the tiger’s qualities as their own.
In an inevitably unequal battle of the mighty, tigers were the preferred hunting quarry of kings and other princely rulers, perhaps nowhere more so than in India. Mughal art is full of scenes depicting tiger hunts, a tradition adopted with bloodthirsty enthusiasm by the British when they governed India. The record for the most tigers killed in a single hunting trip is held by King George V and his party, who shot 39 tigers in a 10-day expedition to India and Nepal in 1911. The Maharajah of Kotah even had a Rolls Royce specially modified for tiger hunting, complete with a mounted machine gun and cannon. “Tigers pay a heavy price for their role in human fantasy,” wrote Ruth Padel in her lyrical book Tigers in Red Weather; “They are a casualty of symbolism.”
The largest of all the wild cats stood little chance under such an onslaught. Of the nine recognized tiger subspecies, three became extinct during the 20th century thanks to indiscriminate shooting, trapping, poisoning and habitat destruction. The island race of Bali tiger was the first to go, hunted into oblivion by the late 1930s. The Caspian tiger was next, those from Tajikistan and Iran in 1958–59, and from Azerbaijan in 1964 (a later record from Turkey is usually discounted). The last Javan tigers were seen in the 1970s. A fourth subspecies, the South China tiger, is believed to have gone extinct in the wild within the past 20 years, but thankfully a small number of animals remain in captivity so the genetic strain continues. For wild tigers elsewhere, the situation had become very bleak by the turn of the present century. They had disappeared from 96 per cent of their former range, under intense pressure from illegal hunting. By 2011 the total global population of wild tigers was estimated to have fallen to just 3,200 individuals.
With the hunting of tigers banned in all countries by the 1970s, illegal poaching was the main culprit behind such a dramatic collapse in numbers. Even in supposedly well protected areas, such as the national parks of India, tigers were quietly disappearing. Poacher snares and other types of trap were stripping forests of the big cats, fuelled by demand from China in particular for the use of their body parts in traditional medicine. Tiger bones, claws, teeth, eyeballs and whiskers are all claimed to have healing properties for a range of ailments from insomnia and rheumatism to malaria and meningitis, despite there being no supporting scientific evidence. During 2000–14, the body parts of more than 1,500 tigers were seized by wildlife law enforcement officials worldwide. With a fresh mature tiger carcass worth $50,000 or more on the black market, it is not difficult to see why poachers are so bent on killing them.
A possible glimmer of hope came in April this year, when conservation groups announced that the world’s estimated population of wild tigers was assessed at 3,890, up 20 per cent in five years. Although some of this increase can be attributed to better recording methods, more effective anti-poaching policies are also helping. These have been particularly successful in the Far East of Russia, where the population of Siberian (or Amur) tigers is now estimated to be in excess of 500 individuals. Organizations such as the Phoenix Fund are working to protect the animals from poaching, as well as reduce other pressures on them and their habitat, such as road-building and illegal logging. Anti-poaching patrols are undertaken with military-style planning and equipment, the tigers – so elusive that they are hardly ever seen in the flesh – monitored by the use of camera traps and GPS tracking. “It’s not just about technology,” explains Sergei Bereznuk, the Fund’s director, “but also education. We need to explain to local people that having tigers in our forests is a source of celebration and pride, so that they will want to look after them for future generations.”
Meanwhile, plans are afoot to return the tiger to Central Asia, where the Caspian (or Turanian) tiger was driven to extinction more than half a century ago. DNA analysis of museum specimens from Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan has revealed that the Caspian population was virtually identical genetically to the Siberian tigers further east and that rather than two separate sub-species these were in fact one; their once contiguous range possibly ruptured by climate changes or human activity. Now conservationists are discussing the possibility of reintroducing tigers (using Siberian animals) to Kazakhstan, where a feasibility study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature has identified the presence of adequate habitat in the basin of the River Ily and along the southern shores of Lake Balkhash.
“The critical question is whether the area can support adequate numbers of the tigers’ preferred prey of wild boar and red deer,” says Dale Miquelle, director of the Russia Programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “With limited funds available for tiger conservation, should we be diverting money to save existing populations for a reintroduction experiment that may or may not succeed?”
Lack of suitable prey is one of the biggest problems for wild tigers. In situations where their natural food sources are in thin supply, tigers will turn to other options. Domestic livestock can make for easy pickings, which naturally brings tigers into immediate conflict with farmers. Attacks on humans are rare, but do occur, usually when tigers are injured or starving. The presence of a plentiful and healthy prey base is therefore paramount to their survival. Globally, it is estimated that there is enough intact forest habitat remaining to enable at least a doubling in overall tiger numbers. More reintroductions are being planned, both within countries such as India, which still have tigers but where some populations have become isolated, and those – such as Cambodia – where tigers have died out.
Despite such positive proposals, poaching remains a constant threat and there is also the alarming proliferation of tiger farms, centres in which tigers are bred for supposedly educational or tourism purposes. “Numbers of tiger farms have increased at an astounding rate across Asia,” says Heather Sohl, WWF-UK’s chief adviser on wildlife. “These undermine efforts to halt the illegal trade and protect wild tigers by complicating enforcement efforts and boosting the demand for products and parts. It is vital tiger farms are closed.” The future of tigers is therefore far from secure, but with more anti-poaching efforts, better education and the right sort of political will, it is just possible that the dazzling object of William Blake’s poetic eye may once again stalk forests from which it had long since disappeared.
Images courtesy of Pixabay Images
A version of this story appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Baku magazine.