we save Can the tiger?

There are only 3,200 left in the wild. So why are con­ser­va­tion­ists boy­cotting the world’s first tiger sum­mit?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Barkham

When a Bri­tish Army colonel called Jim Cor­bett was sum­moned to the thickly forested ravines of the hi­malayas, he found peo­ple liv­ing in ab­ject ter­ror. With­out guns, they were pow­er­less to pro­tect them­selves from a small num­ber of tigers that had de­vel­oped a taste for hu­man flesh.

To live “and have one’s be­ing un­der the shadow of a man-eater” was not so dif­fer­ent from pre­his­toric times, Cor­bett re­flected, when early hu­mans cow­ered in caves to es­cape the sabre-toothed tiger.

Cor­bett hunted alone. he teth­ered buf­falo as bait, stalked silently in rub­ber-soled shoes and even tried to lure tigers by don­ning a sari and dis­guis­ing him­self as a woman cut­ting grass in the fields. Avoid­ing be­ing dis­patched by a tiger to what he called “the happy hunt­ing grounds” in the sky, Cor­bett shot dead more than a dozen rogue tigers.

In the 70 years since Cor­bett bagged his last tiger, the bal­ance of power be­tween Pan­thera ti­gris and mankind has been dra­mat­i­cally re­versed. In Cor­bett’s day, 100,000 of these charis­matic preda­tors roamed free in Asia. As forests were slashed and hunt­ing flour­ished, Cor­bett be­gan to shoot tigers with film rather than with a ri­fle.

“A tiger is a large-hearted gen­tle­man with bound­less courage and when he is ex­ter­mi­nated – as ex­ter­mi­nated he will be un­less pub­lic opin­ion ral­lies to his sup­port – In­dia will be the poorer by hav­ing lost the finest of her fauna,” he wrote pre­sciently in 1944.

There are now just 3,200 tigers left in the wild. Three of the nine sub­species (the Bali, Ja­van and Caspian tigers) are ex­tinct; a fourth, the South China, is also lost to the wild, with a few dozen spec­i­mens sur­viv­ing in cap­tiv­ity. Tigers’ sur­vival is not guar­an­teed even in the most pro­tected places: four died in a north In­dian re­serve named af­ter Cor­bett ear­lier this year. The na­tional an­i­mal of In­dia, nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia and north and South Korea; the ma­jes­tic crea­ture at the heart of east­ern and western cul­ture from tra­di­tional Chi­nese myths to evil Shere Khan in the Jun­gle Book and cud­dly Tig­ger in

Win­nie The Pooh; the big cat that sells us beer, petrol and other hu­man es­sen­tials such as sug­ar­frosted break­fast ce­real, is tee­ter­ing on the very brink of ex­tinc­tion.

This Sun­day, heads of state and se­nior di­plo­mats from 11 key coun­tries will gather in St Peters­burg, Rus­sia, the first time world lead­ers have met to dis­cuss the fate of just one species. Backed by the World Bank, the Tiger sum­mit is billed as the last chance to save the tiger. There are fears, how­ever, it could prove as in­ef­fec­tual as Copen­hagen’s cli­mate change ne­go­ti­a­tions last year. The nation with the biggest tiger pop­u­la­tion, In­dia, may refuse to send a high-level del­e­ga­tion; the Chi­nese, widely blamed for the tiger’s de­cline, are still dis­trusted by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists; even Rus­sia, where Vladimir Putin has made tiger preser­va­tion a mat­ter of per­sonal pride, has suf­fered a dis­as­trous loss of tigers in re­cent years. Some con­ser­va­tion­ists feel the par­tic­i­pants are re­mote bu­reau­crats with no ex­pe­ri­ence of the on-the-ground re­al­i­ties. Oth­ers are re­fus­ing to go at all.

China’s crav­ings

Tiger ex­perts are agreed on the prime, sim­ple cause of its dis­ap­pear­ance: it is be­ing mas­sa­cred for a lu­cra­tive il­le­gal trade in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. Shock­ing new fig­ures re­leased last week show that parts of be­tween 1,069 and 1,220 tigers were seized be­tween 2000 and April this year – an av­er­age of at least 104 an­i­mals per year.

Be­tween 2005 and 2008, it is es­ti­mated that 80% of western nepal’s tigers were killed by poach­ers. Tigers have also been snatched from sup­pos­edly well-pro­tected re­serves in In­dia, and the de­cline of Rus­sia’s Siberian tiger in the last decade has been at­trib­uted to cuts in an­tipoach­ing pro­tec­tion.

Trag­i­cally, each kill only in­creases the rar­ity – and price – of wild tigers. De­spite the trade in parts and skins be­ing banned by the Un Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in en­dan­gered Species (Cites), Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties across Asia still use tiger parts, in­clud­ing eyes and ears, in medicines and ton­ics. Rice wine made with tiger bones is sold as a health drink as an aid to cure arthri­tis and rheuma­tism, while tiger’s penises are used in treat­ments for erec­tile dys­func­tion. ear­lier this year, the Bei­jing-based World Fed­er­a­tion of Chi­nese Medicine So­ci­eties ex­plic­itly ruled it was not nec­es­sary to use tiger parts. It was an im­por­tant an­nounce­ment, but the use of tigers in medicine has been il­le­gal in China for 17 years and since then poach­ing has only es­ca­lated.

While a 2007 sur­vey found fewer than 3% of medicine shops and deal­ers in China claimed to stock tiger bone, there is clearly still a huge black mar­ket in China, Ja­pan and South Korea, where, ac­cord­ing to con­ser­va­tion­ists, a whole tiger can fetch more than US$50,000 (RM160,000).

Ten years ago, con­ser­va­tion­ists be­lieved they had won their fight to save the tiger – habi­tats had been well pro­tected by con­ser­va­tion ef­forts led by Indira Gandhi’s govern­ment in the 1970s; in Rus­sia, the Siberian tiger, all but wiped out in the 1930s, had re­cov­ered to 500 by the 1990s, helped by cap­tive breed­ing pro­grammes. Tigers are soli­tary, ter­ri­to­rial preda­tors that live at low den­si­ties and roam across vast tracts of land. Male Siberian tigers may pa­trol a ter­ri­tory of more than 800 sqkm. To con­serve them you need big spa­ces. The trou­ble is, you can’t pro­tect big spa­ces from poach­ers.

“We were push­ing this idea of land­scape con­ser­va­tion, which was too dif­fuse for the tigers,” says John Robin­son, an ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety. “I look at the things I was say­ing 10 years ago and I was wrong. I thought we’d done a pretty good job of pro­tect­ing them in their core sites and we were look­ing to man­age them in their wider land­scape. We took our eyes off the ball and didn’t see what was hap­pen­ing in the re­serves. We didn’t see that the up­take in poach­ing was as sig­nif­i­cant as it was.”

Robin­son is the lead author of “the 6% so­lu­tion”, a stark and grimly prag­matic new strat­egy set out re­cently in the jour­nal PLoS Bi­ol­ogy. he and other re­spected aca­demics have iden­ti­fied 42 “source sites” (18 in In­dia, with oth­ers in Su­ma­tra and Rus­sia’s far east) that con­tain 70% of the re­main­ing wild tigers. These sites make up just 6% of the tiger’s cur­rent dis­tri­bu­tion and less than 0.5% of its his­tor­i­cal range. Robin­son ar­gues that it is not pos­si­ble to de­fend scat­tered pop­u­la­tions of tigers from poach­ers. In­stead, con­ser­va­tion­ists must save tigers in these source sites, from where up­wards of 25 fe­males can breed and, hope­fully, then re­pop­u­late the wider land­scape.

But con­ser­va­tion­ists do not all agree. WWF says land­scape-scale projects must not be aban­doned. Diane Walk­ing­ton, head of species at WWF-UK, ar­gues it is not enough sim­ply to pre­serve core sites.

“You’ve got to look at cor­ri­dors be­tween ar­eas, and if you don’t es­tab­lish these cor­ri­dors now they will be gone for ever,” she said.

She warns of a fu­ture where

tigers will be con­fined to iso­lated re­serves, lit­tle more than glo­ri­fied sa­fari parks, and won­ders what hap­pens when these reach their ca­pac­ity in terms of tiger pop­u­la­tion. Cor­ri­dors be­tween ar­eas need not be ex­pen­sive re­serves but could in­clude hunt­ing es­tates and farmed ar­eas that al­low tigers to roam in search of mates. But Walk­ing­ton and Robin­son agree on one thing: there must be a “sus­tained fo­cus” on pro­tec­tion. “It’s a bit like guard­ing the crown jew­els. They never be­come unattrac­tive to some­body. You never reach that point when you can say it’s OK now.”

Half-hearted ac­tion

Pro­tec­tion from poach­ers – even in re­serves and na­tional parks – is far from OK now, ac­cord­ing to Bi­vash Pan­dav of WWF, who has spent four years vis­it­ing habi­tats in the 11 tiger-range coun­tries. Speak­ing from his base in Kath­mandu, he sounds close to despair. “The prime min­is­ter of In­dia is very se­ri­ous about tiger con­ser­va­tion but what is hap­pen­ing on the ground is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. A to­tal lack of com­mit­ment is driv­ing tigers out,” he says.

Re­serve man­agers are not held ac­count­able when a tiger is seized; ju­nior staff, or even re­searchers are blamed. “The re­serve man­agers should not only be sacked, they should be fined and put be­hind bars. Un­less we give ex­em­plary pun­ish­ment to cor­rupt and ir­re­spon­si­ble re­serve man­agers, this trend of tiger de­cline will con­tinue. [In] both the re­serves in In­dia, Sariska and Panna, where tigers have be­come ex­tinct in the re­cent past, the man­agers have not only got off scot-free, rather, they have been pro­moted. We don’t need rocket sci­ence to save tigers,” says Pan­dav.

Tigers use fixed trails to pa­trol their favoured haunts. Con­ser­va­tion­ists set up cam­eras to cap­ture tigers on these trails; poach­ers use leg-hole traps on the trails.

“If you have a good knowl­edge of your re­serve, if you monitor all the tiger trails on a weekly ba­sis, you can min­imise the poach­ing,” he says. “In In­dia the staff are not geared up to pro­tect the ar­eas from poach­ing. We need more foot sol­diers. Poach­ing is car­ried out by or­gan­ised gangs. You can con­trol this only by hav­ing solid in­tel­li­gence and then in­tel­li­gence-driven pa­trolling.” Armed pa­trols would help, he ar­gues.

Tigers tend to at­tract al­pha males as their cham­pi­ons: from Putin to the man be­hind the tiger sum­mit, Robert Zoel­lick, pres­i­dent of the World Bank. These are char­ac­ters whose pulses are un­likely to be set rac­ing by try­ing to save a rare moth or a salt marsh.

Dr Alan Rabi­nowitz, pres­i­dent and CEO of Pan­thera, is an­other rugged saviour of the tiger, dubbed “the In­di­ana Jones of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion” by TIME mag­a­zine. Rabi­nowitz re­cently helped iden­tify pre­vi­ously un­doc­u­mented tiger pop­u­la­tions in Bhutan in the BBC’s Lost Land Of The Tiger. Like Pan­dav, he be­lieves con­ser­va­tion­ists are not be­ing held ac­count­able for tiger losses. He cites an In­dian re­serve where tiger pop­u­la­tions are thriv­ing: it has a “shoot to kill” pol­icy to­wards poach­ers.

“We know how to save tigers. It is not brain surgery. Tigers breed re­ally well. Pro­tect them, and they come back pretty quickly but none of the ar­eas are be­ing pro­tected.”

How much hope does he have for the tiger sum­mit? “None,” he says, “and that’s why I’m not go­ing.” He calls it “a fi­asco of more of the same” with a “pre­or­dained” agenda. In­stead of fo­cus­ing solely on the prob­lem of poach­ing, Rabi­nowitz says the tiger sum­mit is de­vot­ing too much time and re­sources to other is­sues, in­clud­ing ed­u­cat­ing lo­cal peo­ple about tigers and car­bon emis­sion al­lowances to pre­serve tiger habi­tat.

“Money has not been fo­cused on the one thing that will save tigers im­me­di­ately, and that’s ad­e­quate pro­tec­tion of the pro­tected ar­eas (from poach­ers),” he says.

“I don’t agree with the World Bank say­ing there are lots of pieces of the puz­zle and we should fund car­bon al­lowances and ed­u­ca­tion and poverty al­le­vi­a­tion – that’s a huge dis­trac­tion. It is just money for po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. We’re giv­ing money to stop the trade in China, stop cap­tive breed­ing of tigers, help lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. None of these things are help­ing tigers now. I don’t give a damn how aw­ful it is that the Chi­nese are breed­ing tigers. That’s not our prob­lem right now.”

Funds needed

The au­thors of “the 6% so­lu­tion” cal­cu­late that just US$35mil (RM112mil) of ad­di­tional in­vest­ment per year would be enough to pro­tect the 42 key sites and thus stop tigers be­ing made ex­tinct.

Al­though he does not ex­pect to see “a lot of peo­ple sign­ing cheques” at the tiger sum­mit, he re­mains cau­tiously op­ti­mistic.

Ahead of the sum­mit, the Chi­nese govern­ment has re­treated from sug­gest­ing it might favour le­gal­is­ing the trade in farmed tiger prod­ucts, which con­ser­va­tion­ists fear would only le­git­imise and fuel fur­ther de­mand for wild tiger parts. Walk­ing­ton hopes that ev­ery­one will com­mit to dou­bling tiger num­bers by the next Chi­nese year of the tiger – 2020 – and agree real de­tails on how to im­ple­ment a tiger re­cov­ery pro­gramme.

“We’ve seen the Chi­nese govern­ment show­ing a much more pos­i­tive fo­cus on tiger con­ser­va­tion,” she says.

Con­vinc­ing the Chi­nese to re­duce the de­mand for tiger parts in tra­di­tional medicine would be a good out­come, ac­cord­ing to Pan­dav. “But un­less con­ser­va­tion­ists set their own house in or­der, pro­tect­ing re­serves on the ground, no amount of sum­mits or con­fer­ences or de­bates are go­ing to save the tiger,” he warns.

For Rabi­nowitz, a tiger “is the epit­ome of the wild and wild­ness”.

“If we can’t pull to­gether enough to save what is the most iconic liv­ing species, then what are we go­ing to do for lesser species?”

Jim Cor­bett vividly de­scribed how he tracked down the Mo­han maneater de­spite be­ing af­flicted with a cough (bad news for silent stalk­ing). Watch­ing flat­tened blades of grass spring up, a sign the tiger had been there only mo­ments be­fore, he even­tu­ally spied a spot of gold – the tip of the tiger’s tale pro­trud­ing from be­hind a rock. Fear­ing it was ready to pounce, he found it fast asleep.

“I do not know how the close prox­im­ity of a tiger re­acts on oth­ers, but me it al­ways leaves with a breath­less feel­ing – due pos­si­bly as much to fear as to ex­cite­ment – and a de­sire for a lit­tle rest,” he wrote, af­ter shoot­ing it.

If only we could give the tiger some respite too. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

In de­cline: A tiger swim­ming in Sun­gai En­dau in Jo­hor. The 500 tigers said to be roam­ing Penin­su­lar Malaysian forests is dis­puted as it was pro­jected over 10 years.

Skinned: Five tiger skins seized by the anti-smug­gling unit at Bukit Kayu Hitam, Kedah, in May 2009.

In­done­sian tiger hunter Wiryo As­mada with the bones of a Su­ma­tran tiger he killed fol­low­ing his cap­ture in Riau, Su­ma­tra, in March. The 92-year-old ad­mit­ted to killing more than 50 crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Su­ma­tran tigers.

Two fe­male Su­ma­tran tiger cubs, born last month in the San Diego Zoo Sa­fari Park. There are more tigers in cap­tiv­ity to­day than in the wild.

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