July 20, 2006

Tiger Habitat Shrinks by 40 Percent in 10 Years

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tigers have 40 percent less habitat than they did a decade ago, due to intense poaching and the rise of an Asian middle class that puts pressure on the big cats and their environment, wildlife experts said on Thursday.

"Wild tigers and their habitats are in danger because they're suffering from international crime, economic exploitation and environmental depredation," said John Seidensticker, a scientist at the U.S. National Zoo and chair of the Save The Tiger Fund Council, a conservation group.

"We must make live tigers worth more than dead tigers, and landscapes with tigers worth more than landscapes that are missing this most beautiful cat," Seidensticker said at a news conference held next to a zoo enclosure, where a Sumatran tiger breakfasted under a tree.

Tigers live in just 7 percent of their historic range, which once included large areas from the shores of the Black Sea to the Korean peninsula.

The biggest tiger landscapes now are in the Russian Far East and northeastern China and along the Nepal-India border, according to a report released by the World Wildlife Fund, the Save the Tiger Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The report was billed as the most comprehensive scientific study of tiger habitat.

Poaching of tigers for their parts, which are used for traditional medicines, has contributed to the animals' shrinking habitat, said Eric Dinerstein, one of the report's authors.


"There's a rising middle class in Asia that can now afford tiger parts, even though this trade is illegal," Dinerstein said.

In addition, some of the large swaths of forest that tigers need to thrive have been fragmented, and parts that remain are too isolated to support the big cats, Dinerstein said. Other parts of the tigers' range have been converted to plantations of oil palms, acacia or other crops, he said.

Estimating the number of wild tigers is difficult, Dinerstein said, but he noted that if there were an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers a decade ago, there are almost certainly fewer than 5,000 now.

"There are probably more tigers alive in private hands in the state of Texas than in the wild worldwide," Dinerstein said.

The good news can be found in southern Nepal and northern India, where a five-year conservation program has connected 12 formerly isolated tiger reserves, and has engaged local communities to help with the project, said Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Save the Tiger Fund.

Communities around the tiger reserves get 50 percent of the proceeds from the reserves nearest to them, Shrestha said. If tigers kill family members or livestock, local residents are compensated, he said.

Shrestha said reclaiming the tigers' habitat could have global environmental impact.

"The area that the tiger requires is a huge chunk of land," he said in an interview. "If we can save tigers, then that means we are saving a huge chunk of forest ... the global community can benefit from that."

A single tiger requires an average of nearly 20 squares miles of good quality forest, he said.

Locally, forest products including fruit, nuts and mushrooms benefit neighbouring communities, Shrestha said. And the clean water needed to support tiger habitat also supports agriculture, fish farming and hydroelectric dams, he said.