Like most people, I have never seen a tiger in the wild. Despite being a conservation biologist, the only tigers I regularly encounter at close range are popular icons in Western culture, like Hobbes, Tigger, Slier Khan, and the jolly Tony on my breakfast cereal box. I have admired tigers in zoos, however, so they are somewhat more real to me than dinosaurs, but much less so than the grey squirrels outside my office window. Nonetheless, it is important to me that tigers roam the world, as it is to many others. In a 2004 poll for the cable network Animal Planet, more than 20 percent of 50,000 viewers representing 73 countries voted the tiger the "world's favorite animal."
Maybe, paradoxically, this is why the world holds fewer than 4,000 wild tigers today. To most of us, they are thriving--in our minds and imaginations, on TV, and in the pages of magazines like this one--and this enables continued denial and inaction. Meanwhile, the reality of the tiger is that all remaining subpopulations--none of which numbers more than 250 individuals--are in decline and that they now roam across only 7 percent of their original range.
Of the nine tiger subspecies that once thrived, poaching, conflict, and competition with human populations have driven three species to extinction and three others to near extinction within the past 50 years. The South China tiger, vigorously persecuted after a bounty was placed on its head by Chairman Mao himself, is considered to be functionally extinct.
The Demise of The World's Favorite Animal"
The "world's favorite animal" continues to be worth more dead than alive. Demand persists for its skin, bones, organs, and meat, and competition with tigers for land and prey (such as deer and wild pigs) steadily intensifies as human populations grow. A recently published study estimates that the tiger's range has shrunk more than 40 percent just since 1995, and much that remains is highly fragmented, with some patches able to support only a few adults. Increased habitat fragmentation also provides easier access for humans competing with tigers for prey. Although secured within the Meru Betiri Reserve of Indonesia (see map), the last remaining Javan tigers--which had been driven to the brink of extinction by hunting and habitat loss--ultimately died off due to lack of prey.
No threat is driving tigers more rapidly toward extinction than poaching for consumption and trade, however. In 2004, India was stunned to discover that the entire tiger population of its Sariska Tiger Reserve (more than 20 individuals) had disappeared. Between 1999 and 2004, China alone seized 80 tiger skins and 31 skeletons, and it is safe to assume that this represents a fraction of animals actually slaughtered and trafficked during that period. Rumored to have an astonishing range of properties, from anti-convulsive effects (tiger eyes) to enhancing sexual prowess (tiger penis soup), tiger products in particular demand today include plasters (externally applied poultices containing ground tiger bone and herbs, believed to provide relief from pain, such as that caused by arthritis), tiger bone wine (the product of steeping skeletons in alcohol for an extended period, believed to treat illness and improve sexual capacity), and skin for adornment and home decor.
Before domestic trade in tiger products was banned in 1993, China's tiger bone-medicines market alone had grown to a high-tech industry valued at US$12.4 million per year, and consumption of all tiger products within China totaled 8-10 million units per year. Following the ban, a major black market in tiger products sprang up and has continued to thrive. In a recent survey of nearly 2,000 people in seven Chinese cities, 96 percent said protection of wild tigers is important--but nearly 40 percent had used tiger products since the ban and more than 70 percent of these indicated a preference for products from wild tigers over those from...