The Year of the Tiger ends in early February. Chinese zodiac aside, this hasn't been a good year for the tiger. Even golfer Tiger Woods has had a better year than his namesake animal. And, as you know, his year sucked.
The situation for the tiger worldwide has become so precarious that politicians, scientists, conservationists, and bankers from 13 countries where tigers live met in Russia in November to discuss ways to save it from extinction. Government leaders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and Russia signed the St. Petersburg Declaration, with the aim of doubling the world tiger population by 2022 — the next Year of the Tiger. The agreement calls for improved habitat protection and enhancement, and a crackdown on illegal poaching and trade in tiger parts.
Three of the nine subspecies of tiger are already extinct and the remaining six are endangered, two of them critically. A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the Eastern Hemisphere from the tropical forests of Malaysia to the subarctic woodlands of Siberia. Now, scientists believe only about 3,200 remain in the wild. Like Canada's large iconic predators, including grizzly bears, tigers are threatened especially by habitat loss and fragmentation.
But tigers are encountering additional pressures. Tiger skins and body parts are valued by poachers, in part because of their use in traditional Chinese medicine. Increasing conflict with people as human populations expand is also putting the tiger in danger.
As Vancouver writer John Vaillant notes in his excellent book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, it's not just for the tiger's sake that we should be concerned. Mr. Vaillant writes that "the tiger represents an enormous canary in the biological coal mine." When a large predator like the tiger, or the grizzly here in Canada, is healthy, it's a sign that the habitat and prey that support it are also healthy.
In a recent article, Mr. Vaillant writes that the tiger is "a bellwether for what scientists are calling the Sixth Great Extinction: the massive, human-driven loss of species currently underway across the globe." He adds that "If the tiger is allowed to go extinct in the wild (and 'allow' is the operative word here), it will represent the first time in 10,000 years that such a large predator has disappeared from our collective landscape."
Scientists believe the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in its history, all caused by physical forces. This time humans are the cause. Biologists estimate that we are losing about 30,000 species a year, or about three every hour, through alteration of the landscape and atmosphere, pollution, overexploitation of plants and animals, and introduction of alien species into ecosystems.
With the tiger, we have seen some small successes that should give us hope for the possibility of turning things around. In 1947, Russia became the first country in the world to protect the tiger, and the country's population of Amur or Siberian tigers grew from a low of about 30 to 250 in the mid 1980s. As the Soviet Union started crumbling in the late 1980s, the tiger again became threatened because of the ensuing corruption and illegal deforestation and poaching. In 1992, Russia's government implemented new conservation measures, which led to recovery and stabilization of the tiger population at about 450 today.
World leaders now appear to be taking the tiger's fate seriously. With efforts and funding from a number of governments and conservation groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Environment Facility, and the World Wildlife Fund, along with donations from individuals including movie star Leonardo DiCaprio, the tiger may be facing a brighter future.
If it is true, as Mr. Vaillant points out, that tigers are the bellwether for the Sixth Great Extinction, then we really have little time to lose. Our planet and its natural systems are resilient, but they have only recovered from past extinction events when the cause of those events dissipated. We absolutely must change the way we treat the natural systems of which we are very much a part, or we, as the cause of this impending extinction and as the top predator on the planet, will suffer the consequences.