November 05, 2015

By Julie Hartell-DeNardo
Zoological Manager, Carnivores

I've worked with many animals for more than a dozen years at three zoos stretching from Texas to California. My recent focus has been on carnivores: lions and tigers and bears (particularly polar bear Kali)—I know, oh my!

I also love to eat pesto, so you can imagine my dismay when I found out that one of my favorite animals is being destroyed by the global demand for one of my favorite ingredients: pine nuts.

That's right—the New York TImes recently reported that those of us who enjoy pesto with "handfuls of fresh basil, fistfuls of peeled garlic bulbs, hunks of parmesan, cruets of olive oil and jars of pine nuts" are helping to eradicate the habitat of the very endangered Amur or Siberian tiger.

Once plentiful in eastern Russia (Siberia), northeastern China and northern reaches of North Korea, only 350 to 450 Amur tigers are estimated to survive in the wild today—none in Siberia.

This is even more shocking, because this is not a tiny species but the largest cat in the world. The Amur tiger stands about three feet tall at the shoulder and is longer and usually heavier than any lion. Adult males can grow up to 11 feet long and weigh over 600 pounds; females are smaller—up to nine feet long and about 370 pounds.

We have two of these beautiful creatures at the Saint Louis Zoo—Waldo (left) and Kalista (below). Kalista is 14 years old and came to the Saint Louis Zoo from the Philadelphia Zoo in 2003. She's the mom of several cubs who have moved on to other zoos to breed and help build an assurance population for the species. Her partner, male Waldemere (Waldo), age 12, came to the Zoo in 2011. He was born at Denver Zoo. Every day, this pair helps us tell a larger story about the serious decline of tigers in the wild due to habitat destruction, poaching and the use of tiger bones in traditional medicine practices. And yes, now we learn, due to our love for pine nuts.

The New York Times reports that the pine nut market in North America sources only about 20 percent of its supply from native species like the pinyon pine in the Southwest. Increasingly, the global demand and skyrocketing prices have shifted the U.S. market toward less expensive Asian varieties, among which the Korean pine is the most important. The Korean pine is found primarily in the Russian home of the Amur tiger.

Due to a better system of roads created by logging, the pine nuts are harvested from cones gathered by droves of collectors. The cones are then shucked and the nuts sold to Chinese merchants, who haul truckloads across the border to China. From there, they are shipped overseas—eventually to our local grocery stores.

The entire Korean pine ecosystem could collapse if global demand continues at its present pace. "The Korean pine nut pesto you eat today thus carries with it an unseen cost that could shatter an ecosystem bottom to top, seedling to tree, and chipmunk to tiger," according to the New York Times report.

How can you help stop this? When you make that pesto this fall as you harvest your basil crop, consider using walnuts, cashews, pistachios and even almonds—not pine nuts.

And when you buy wood products, make sure the timber was harvested without destroying tigers' habitat. Check out the website of the Forest Stewardship Council for help in finding forest-friendly products. Each of us can make a difference with a small sacrifice.

See you in the grocery aisle—almonds are looking better every day!