August 01, 2016
By Steve Bircher
Curator of Carnivores
There's a day for everything and almost every well-known animal, and in the cluster of days dedicated to multiple species was July 29---International Tiger Day. It is worth observing this amazing animal—the top predator in every ecosystem it inhabits, the biggest cat in the world and the only large wild cat with stripes.
As a lover of cats who has cared for felid species for decades, I do have tremendous respect for the tiger. We have two amazing Amur tigers at the Saint Louis Zoo—Waldemere and Kalista. They have been parents to several offspring and are ambassadors for the tigers that are disappearing in the world. Our Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan® (SSP) for Amur tigers. This is a cooperative breeding program, with a number of zoos working together to ensure their survival.
Which is in question. Once there were over 100,000 tigers roaming the world; now there are fewer than 3,000. A number of tiger species are already extinct—and it's estimated only 350 to 450 Amur tigers exist in the wild.
What happened to this iconic species? As forests shrink and prey get scarce, tigers are forced to hunt domestic livestock—putting them in conflict with humans.
For Amur tigers living in Russian Far East, border areas of China and possibly in North Korea, the primary threats are poaching and habitat loss from intensive logging and development.
For other tiger species, climate change is a growing threat. As ocean levels rise, tigers are losing habitat due to coastal erosion in areas like India's Sundarban Islands. Also, as sea water moves up river, naturally fresh water is becoming more saline—causing the tigers to move into more populated areas—forcing villagers to protect their livestock and their lives.
Another major threat is the illegal trade of tiger body parts, which are sought for trophies and medicinal purposes because medicine men have imbued tigers and their parts with untold healing properties.
The fact that Tiger parts are precious is not surprising given their ancient legacy as givers of life, mediums, gods and guardians. Throughout human history, the diverse peoples of the vast Asian continent have both feared and revered the tiger. The earliest fossil, a tiger-like skull unearthed in China, is two million years old. Archaeologists have found Neolithic tiger paintings from 8,000 years ago etched into rock cave walls across the Indian subcontinent.
Tigers are also symbols of power and courage, and for some cultures, they are the key to immortality and messengers sent by venerated spirits. Indian mythology is filled with tigers—fighting dragons, bringing rain in time of drought, delivering babies to the childless, keeping children safe from nightmares, healing the ill. The worship of tigers continues to this day among native tribes in India.
For all these reasons—their majesty, their cultural importance and their role in insuring the biodiversity of ecosystems, tigers must be saved. There is hope. To battle the poaching problem, governments are working to establish more effective law enforcement and anti-poaching squads. In the field, conservation organizations across the world are creating a network of protected areas. These organizations with the help of zoos are monitoring tigers and their prey to assess the size and sustainability of populations and adapt strategies to increase these populations using techniques that are based on strong science and field experience. Since 2012 our Zoo has been collaborating with other AZA Zoos in the Tiger Conservation Campaign, which is a program supporting anti-poaching and monitoring efforts for the Amur tiger in eastern Russia. And in our daily lives, each of us can avoid buying products made from tiger parts, and we can look for wood products that are harvested without destroying tigers' habitat. The Forest Stewardship Council has advice and several websites list forest-friendly products.
We will never return to the days when nine tiger species roam the Earth from Siberia's forests to Indonesia's steamy tropical jungles or from present-day Turkey to the East China Sea, but we can work to save—and possibly grow—tiger populations that remain so our children and grandchildren can enjoy these splendid animals.