photo: Tambako the Jaguar via flickr.
With all the tiger focus in the past week, with the start of the Chinese New Year, a really interesting interview in Yale Environment 360 with Alan Rabinowitz of conservation group Panthera. Rabinowitz makes two points which really make you sit up: 1) conservation groups really need to be held accountable for their efforts at big cat conservation, and 2) even with massively reduced habitat tiger populations could be ten times higher than they are today.Rabinowitz says that the world's 2500-3000 wild tigers live on just 5-7% of their former range, but even that small about of remaining habitat "could probably hold up to 30,000 tigers right now at reasonable densities." That is if we could actually rein in poaching and demand for tiger parts.
Tiger Part Demand Increasing as China's Economy Booms
There is and has been for centuries a demand by Asian traditional medicine -- not just the Chinese by the way, but that's the biggest trade -- for big cat parts and bones. It is not driven by the concept of an aphrodisiac, as many people think. It's mostly been used for other kinds of things that Western medicine generally hasn't been able to address, like joint complaints, rheumatoid arthritis. Now as the Chinese economy has boomed, more people could afford it and there's been more demand. And that has driven tiger numbers very, very low, because if you're a poor local person in a place like Myanmar or India, or even Thailand, killing one tiger could basically change your life. It could give your daughter a dowry; it could buy you a marketplace in a local village. It's basically a pot of gold for a local person. The issue is how do we turn that around.
This is where conservation groups have to step up, cooperate more with one another, with governments and with communities. Rabinowitz cites some successes in Thailand, India and Burma, adding that in all of the nations where tigers live there are good laws in place to protect them. It's just that they aren't well enforced. And it's here that conservation groups have "fallen short."
Everyone's Fighting for Their Piece of the Pie
Rabinowitz says everyone is "fighting for their own piece of the donor pie. They all want to put their own name on what kind of agenda they are doing." They don't want to be held accountable:
They want to say, "Look, we did great things, we trained a hundred teachers, we trained a hundred tiger guards, we have put millions of dollars into tiger range countries, don't blame us if the tiger is still going downhill." That's crap.
The ball has to stop somewhere and I think it stops with the international conservation community. If there's any watchdog out there, it should be us, and if there is anybody who's held accountable for decreasing tiger numbers and eventually possible tiger extirpation on this world, it is us as the international conservation community. We are taking people's money and we're saying we will help tigers, and it's not like trying to figure out how to land a human being on Saturn. We know how to save tigers. We know how to turn tiger numbers around.
Strict Enforcement of Existing Laws Crucial
Which comes back to addressing that demand for tiger parts and enforcing existing laws. Rabinowitz says, "We're dealing with less than 3,000 tigers in the world and there people out there who don't give a damn because them getting tiger is going to mean a lot more money in their pocket. I don't blame them, but the way we counter it, in some cases, is simply hardcore enforcement."
Read more; Rabinowitz goes into the state of lions being worse than perceived by the public and how jaguars aren't as bad off as they once were:
A New Strategy For Saving the World's Big Cats
Fewer Than 50 Tigers Left in China, Wildlife Conservation Society Says
All World's Tigers Extinct in 15-20 Years Without Better Conservation Efforts
China Failing to Stop Gangster's Tiger Trade - Investigators Offered Many Leopard Skins Too
The Year of the Tiger - Beautiful Animals on the Brink