The tiger's walk into the sunset continues

By Op Rana
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 3, 2016
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Seven Manchurian tigers and four African lion cubs play in the nursery at Forest Wildlife World in Qingdao, Shandong province. The playgroup is a little overcrowded after the sudden influx of 11 newborn cubs. The lions tend to spend most of their time resting, while the baby tigers are constantly on the move and even scream occasionally, attracting a great number of visitors.[Photo by Yu Fangping/Asianewsphoto]

The number of tigers across the globe (read Asia) is on the rise for the first time in a century. Tigers in the wild, according to the most recent data, number about 3,890, up from an estimated 3,200 in 2010. The increase, a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature says, can be attributed to improved surveys and strengthened protection of the iconic species in India, Russia, Nepal and Bhutan.

The news certainly calls for celebration, especially if you care for the environment, biodiversity or simply wildlife. Any such celebration, however, would be premature.

The WWF report was issued on April 10. But just four days before that, a report that went almost unnoticed (despite the prominence given to it by The Guardian) said tigers are "functionally extinct" in Cambodia. Conservationists said the last tiger in Cambodia was seen on camera trap in the eastern province of Mondulkiri in 2007. "Today, (however,) there are no longer any breeding populations of tigers left in Cambodia, and they are therefore considered functionally extinct," conservationists said in a statement.

Perhaps the highest increase in the number of tigers was seen in India: about 30 percent in the past four years. Indian authorities now claim the country is home to as many as 2,226 tigers, or almost three-fourths of the global total.

But the number, ever since it was released, has seen the scientific community challenge the claim of the India government. No, environmentalists and conservationists are not challenging the number of tigers in India; instead, they are questioning the rate of increase in the number of tigers.

Conservationists say the number of tigers may have increased from the historical low, but a good deal of that increase can be attributed to better counting methods in countries like India.

In fact, Anurag Danda of the WWF, one of the groups that took part in the tiger census, said: "I'd prefer to say there are 30 percent more known tigers rather than say there is actually an increase in (the number of) tigers. We might not have counted them all earlier."

The Indian scientific community has a point, because poaching of tigers (and other endangered species) in India is on the rise. For example, the Wildlife Protection Society of India's quarterly report, released late last month, says 28 tigers were killed by poachers in the first three months of this year, compared with 25 in the whole of last year. The total number of tiger deaths in the forests of India is much higher, though, 58, in three months

No doubt, the efforts of the Indian government and conservationists are the reason for the high number of tigers in India. But the future of tigers still looks bleak because of the continuing loss of habitats thanks to deforestation, mining and industrialization, and poachers and the "thriving" market for tiger parts that fuels poaching.

The tiger, by being on top of the food chain, plays a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. These ecosystems supply both nature and people with fresh water, food, and health. That is to say, by saving tigers, we will help people too.

Tigers also help maintain biodiversity. For instance, just one tiger can help protect biodiversity in about 25,000 acres of forest. And maintaining biodiversity directly benefits many other important species like elephants, rhinos, black bears and deer, to name just a few.

But the rate at which tigers are being killed and their habitats destroyed, our forests could soon be devoid of them. And the generation next may learn about these magnificent cats just from remembrance of things past.

Which reminds one of Joni Mitchell's Big YellowTaxi: They took all the trees/And put them in a tree museum/Then they charged the people/A dollar and a half just to see 'em. Only that the tigers in the museum would be the works of art of taxidermists.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily.

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