The Tiger in India
Setting foot in India for the first time is an overwhelming experience. A country of phenomenal beauty, luxury and glamour as well as of heart-breaking poverty and seemingly total chaos, it’s not hard to see why wildlife conservationists face a challenge in India and protecting tigers in the country looms large.
All over the world, tiger populations are under threat. At the turn of the 20th Century, there were 40,000 tigers in the wild in India alone, and an estimated 100,000 or more in the world. Now there are only 9000 wild tigers left on the planet. Every day, another tiger is killed in the wild.
This figure is shocking, but the good news is that tiger populations are, for the first time, on the rise. In India, Project Tiger, which was set up the Indian Government in 1973 conducted a survey the same year it was founded. They found only 1827 wild tigers left in India. Working quickly, Project Tiger began setting up reserves across the country and pushing for harsher penalties for poaching. Their efforts were a huge success and shouldn’t be downplayed. But with so many tiger charities working to protect these beautiful animals, why haven’t tiger populations risen more quickly and more steadily?
Three main issues affect tiger populations, and some of these are only coming to be properly understood recently as a result of new academic research.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
Probably the most well-known threat to tigers is their illegal trade worldwide. Most infamously, tiger bones remain a sought-after ingredient within Chinese medicine. Although punishments are harsh (in 2012 a Russian man was sentenced to 14 months hard labour and ordered to pay US$18,500 for killing one tiger) the financial incentives are sadly still enough to tempt poachers.
In 2010, protestors gathered to try to prevent Vietnamese authorities from auctioning 6lbs of “tiger paste” which had been seized from poachers. One pound of the “paste” can sell on Hong Kong’s black market for up to US$10,000 and the authorities aimed to take advantage of a legal loophole to cash in. Protestors and spokespeople worldwide pointed out that these actions serve to legitimise poaching and put tiger’s lives at risk.
Tigers for Pets
As if the trade for Chinese medicine weren’t enough, tigers are also sold across the world, incredibly, as pets. According to an article by the Smithsonian, there are more tigers in captivity (many of them in private residences) than there are wild across the whole planet. Just last year, in fact, a Mexican teenager was caught trying to smuggle a tiger cub into the US. He claimed he had bought it on the streets of the Mexican town of Tijuana for US$300. Exotic pets like tigers, though illegal, can sell in the US for tens of thousands of dollars. With many conservation bodies understaffed and underfunded, and with poachers still able to cash in on illegal trades in tigers both living and dead, in many regions protecting the tigers can feel like an uphill battle.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Habitat loss is clearly an issue not only for tigers but for all kinds of endangered animals across the globe. And while India has 50 protected tiger reserves, the effects of fragmentation on the tigers are only recently being properly understood.
Fragmentation occurs when reserves are located in isolated areas cut off from one another, often with roads and human habitations in between. According to research by Uma Ramakrishnan et al at the National Centre for Biological Studies in India, being isolated in this way can have a negative impact on tiger populations, making hunting and breeding very difficult.
Researchers have also only recently discovered the importance of “tiger corridors”. These are thoroughfares used by tigers to go from place to place. Tigers are nighttime hunters and naturally roam over large areas of land, typically covering up to 20km each night. The problem occurs when these “tiger corridors” are outside of the officially protected reserve areas and cause the tigers to come into contact with humans.
Human and tiger conflict
The human population of India has grown by 50% in the last two decades. This is bad news for tigers. Not only are tiger’s hunting grounds being destroyed to make way for roads and towns, but human populations living in rural areas may encounter tigers using the all-important “tiger corridors” outside of the known reserves.
Many organisations, such as Tiger Awareness, spearhead local education projects to teach rural communities how to safely live alongside tigers. However, in many regions, tigers are trapped, poisoned or hunted due to human fear or because hungry tigers are resorting to hunting valuable livestock. So how can you help? Organisations dedicated to protecting tigers around the world largely rely on donations.
10% of sales from The Wildlife Studio are donated to Tiger Awareness to help them continue their important work in India.
Every donation made to tiger charities can help the World Wildlife Federation hit their aim of doubling tiger populations across the world by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.