Could this Chinese Year of the Tiger be the last one with actual tigers still afoot in the world’s wild? The numbers are not encouraging. Experts believe the global wild tiger population has fallen to below 3,000 — less than 3 percent of what it was just 100 years ago. Today, their range has been reduced to small patches, isolating many of the animals in genetically impoverished groups of dozens of cats or fewer.
In India, some famous tiger reserves have no tigers left at all. The new Year of the Tiger, which began last month, will be a year of talking about the tiger, and urgently so. Thailand hosted a meeting of concerned Asian nations last month. This week a major conference — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — begins in Qatar, where tigers will be a marquee topic. A “summit” planned for Vladivostok, in September, will be hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia and the president of the World Bank.
Mr. Putin has taken an especially active interest in the Amur sub-species, also known as the Siberian tiger, the largest of all the big cats, with males weighing up to 800 pounds and growing to lengths of 12 feet. Visitors to his Web site can track the movements of a female he collared with a transmitting device in 2008.
The long human assault on tigers has many participants: the seekers of traditional tiger-based medicines for mundane ailments like headaches; poachers and traffickers who raid wildlife sanctuaries; governments indifferent to the steady march of farmers and settlers on the tiger’s dwindling range.
A leading conservationist implicates one more culprit: the world’s leading conservationists. Alan Rabinowitz, who heads Panthera, a group devoted to big cat preservation, says that ever-more-numerous tiger organizations are mostly competing for donors when they should be concentrating on protecting the most promising populations and fighting poachers, the cats’ foremost threat. Despite millions raised and spent in the last decade or so, wild tigers may have declined by half over that time.
China banned trade in tiger products in 1993, but illegal demand there remains high and is the greatest driver of poaching. China periodically has considered lifting the ban to allow some of its tiger farms to provide parts to meet domestic demand for medicinal tiger products.
The possibility that China could lift the ban “is without a doubt the most polarized issue in tiger conservation,” said Ronald Tilson, a director at the Minnesota Zoo and an authority on tigers. Most conservationists insist that more tiger products increase demand, and more demand always hurts wild tigers, because consumers prefer wild ones for what is believed to be their greater potency.
There are an estimated 5,000 captive tigers in China and another 8,000 worldwide — kept as exhibits, entertainment, pets and livestock. In Texas alone, a hotspot in the robust market for the animals, there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild globally.
Meanwhile, the talk continues over how to keep these biggest of the big cats freely roaming a few small corners of the planet.