Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Time of the Tiger

Tigers are big cats with big problems. The Zoo has joined a bold, global effort to save them.

By Peter Winkler

Dragons and dancers swarmed the streets of cities around the world this past February. Vermillion and gold dazzled the eye as parades made their vibrant way over the asphalt. Joyful noises thrilled the ear.

The gleeful mission of all these merrymakers was to usher in the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese zodiac. Once every dozen years, the calendar honors the sleek, striped cats that are among the most majestic animals on Earth. People born under this sign are said to be, like tigers themselves, powerful and courageous.

Perhaps 3,200 tigers—a new low—survive in the wild. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Yet the Year of the Tiger hasn’t been terribly kind to the animal it honors. In July, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that Earth’s population of wild tigers had dropped—from about 100,000 in 1900—to perhaps 3,200. That is the lowest tiger estimate on record.

This grim discovery follows several decades of bad news for tigers. Of the eight tiger subspecies, three, perhaps four, have gone extinct. “In the 1950s,” recalls John Seidensticker, a National Zoo veteran who is one of the world’s leading tiger experts, “we lost the Bali tiger. In the 1970s, we lost the Caspian tiger. In the 1980s, the Javan tiger went extinct. In the 1990s, the South China tiger probably went extinct in the wild. At least, we cannot find any.” Seidensticker takes these losses personally: “Losing a tiger is like losing a close beloved relative. It is just an awful feeling.”

Amur (Siberian) tigers, the world’s largest cats, gave scientists a glimmer of hope not long ago, for they seemed to be recovering. But trend surveys suggest otherwise, says Seidensticker. The population may have declined by 15 to 40 percent in the past three or four years. Indonesia’s Sumatran tigers, the subspecies on exhibit at the Zoo, number only 300 to 600 in the wild.

How Is This Happening?

“I’ve never seen anything in the world with a greater presence than the tiger,” says Keshav Varma, who heads the World Bank’s tiger-conservation efforts. Few people who’ve come face-to-face with tigers would disagree. It’s no wonder that tigers are popular emblems for everything from nations to fighter pilots to breakfast cereal. They are awesomeness incarnate.

So how is it possible that humankind is on the cusp of letting this elegant predator slink away into extinction? The reasons are complex and varied, but two themes are paramount.

One key problem stems from the tiger’s own allure. The animal’s immense power has made it a treasured ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. All parts of its body, writes noted tiger advocate Hemanta Mishra, “are used to treat a wide range of ailments from malaria to meningitis and even alcoholism. The tiger’s tail is used to treat skin infection. Its eyeballs are supposed to cure epilepsy and malaria. Powdered claw is used to cure insomnia.” Those are just a few examples.

A tiger's coat can earn a poacher $1,500. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Trade in tiger parts is illegal, but a brisk, international black market provides poachers with a strong incentive to hunt tigers. A single kill, Mishra points out, can net a poacher $3,000—half for the skin, half for the body and bones. Against such powerfully motivated and often desperately ruthless criminals, wildlife patrols—generally underpaid and understaffed—are often outmatched.

A second problem facing tigers is the ballooning of Asia’s human population, from just under a billion in 1900 to 4.2 billion today. More people mean more farms, more towns, more roads, more dams—at the expense of habitat for tigers and other wildlife. According to a recent report by scientists from the Zoo, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, tigers now occupy only 7 percent of their historic range. And much of that habitat is fragmented into parcels too small to support large, healthy tiger populations.

Habitat fragmentation is a particularly acute problem because tigers need vast spaces to find enough prey. “The size of areas they need are bigger than we ever imagined at the start,” says Seidensticker, “and that’s why almost all protected areas in Asia are too small to support viable populations.”

Changing the Conversation

Looking over tigers’ bleak landscape a few years ago, conservationists came to a humbling realization: Decades of devoted effort had not done enough. Tigers were still prowling the edge of extinction. A key problem, Seidensticker explains, was that conservationists were talking largely to other conservationists. “We needed,” he says, “to change the conversation about tiger conservation and bring many more voices into it.

To begin broadening the conversation, Seidensticker and other tiger advocates started talking with officials at the World Bank. The conversation soon caught the ear of Bank President Robert Zoellick. He committed the Bank to saving tigers, joining with the Smithsonian and many other partners, both governments of the 13 tiger-range countries and nongovernmental organizations, to form the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), which was launched at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in June 2008.

GTI Agreement

The President of the World Bank (left) and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (right) sign an agreement to work togther to conserve tigers. (Adrian Testa/Smithsonian)

Having the World Bank as a partner gives conservationists newfound clout. As Varma notes, “The conversation is now taking place at the highest levels.” That’s crucial for building political will to save tigers. Officials from tiger-range countries have met several times now to study and address the complex issues involved in tiger conservation. These include designing development and infrastructure projects that respect core tiger habitat, ensuring that communities near tiger habitat reap the benefits of conservation (such as a share of tourism revenues), and strengthening multinational mechanisms for halting the illegal trade in tiger parts.

The conversation will truly reach the highest levels later this year, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will host a Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg. Tiger advocates hope the summit will draw worldwide attention to the plight of tigers—and of all wildlife. Heads of government from tiger-range countries will gather with their partners in the international community to chart a path toward a bold goal: doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. Achieving this goal will take tremendous determination and smart, coordinated effort. Yet tiger advocates believe it can happen.

Another Crucial Conversation

Talking to high-level policymakers is vital. Yet tiger advocates realized they needed to have other conversations as well. One of the most important is with people who are actually on the ground in tiger habitat, striving day in and day out to protect these mighty cats. So GTI launched the Conservation and Development Network (CDN). It’s an international mechanism for training and information-sharing.

CDN is an effort to build what Steve Monfort, Director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), calls “armies of champions for tiger conservation.” Tigers, he says, need advocates “across all sectors of society.”

Tiger with cubs

Tigers are an "umbrella species." Their habitat shelters many other animals as well. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

That’s a good description of the 25 people who took part in CDN’s first Training of Trainers course earlier this year. Participants included park rangers, scientists, governmental officials, and representatives from conservation groups.

The intensive program, undertaken in cooperation with the Wildlife Institute of India, included six weeks of training at various sites in India, followed by a fortnight at the SCBI campus in Front Royal. Classes and field exercises honed key skills, such as using footprints, scat, and radio collars to track tigers; conducting wildlife censuses; using cutting-edge software to analyze wildlife data; safely immobilizing an animal to fit it with a radio collar; collecting and presenting evidence that can be used to convict poachers; working with local people to balance their needs with those of tigers; and much more.

Francisco Dallmeier, who heads SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Sustainability, played a key role in organizing the Training of Trainers course. He says it was an honor to work on this issue, and he hopes that the participants will impart what they learned to colleagues and others who care about saving tigers. “We have the opportunity here,” Dallmeier says, “to make a difference.

Looking Ahead

Making a difference at all levels of the tiger-conservation conversation is the urgent goal of the Global Tiger Initiative. As we’ve seen, GTI’s efforts range from helping policymakers forge the will and a broad strategy to save tigers to sharpening conservation workers’ tools for protecting these endangered icons of biodiversity.

Each meeting, each memo, each training class, each talk broadens the global conversation about tigers. By 2022, tiger advocates hope, that conversation will include delighted discussion about how humankind brought tigers back from the brink in time for a truly joyous Year of the Tiger.


PETER WINKLER is the editor of Smithsonian Zoogoer. PHYLLIS MCINTOSH contributed material to this article.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(5) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.