Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
As tiger populations around the world continue to plummet due to climate shifts, habitat loss and illegal hunting, the world celebrates today, July 29, as International Tiger Day to draw attention to the plight of one of the world’s most majestic creatures.
Tiger numbers have gone from a fairly healthy 100,000 only a century ago, to less than 3,200 wild animals today. And at the current rate of poaching and habitat loss, tigers could completely disappear within the next ten years.
According to tigerday.org, tigers have lost 93 percent of their natural habitat due to expansion of cities and agriculture. This encroachment has affected the survival rates of tigers, as they are forced to inbreed and are becoming more susceptible to poaching as their habitats grow smaller.
HUMANS VS TIGERS
At one time, tiger habitat was widespread across much of Asia, from Turkey to the east coast of Russia and from Siberia down through China and into the Indonesian islands. Now, tigers are limited to pockets throughout these regions, with many areas totally without. Logging, agriculture, roadways, and cities have diminished the tiger populations to record lows, and poaching is now finishing off the remaining pockets of tiger populations.
As people continue to whittle away the tiger habitat, the feline beasts are forced to find alternative food sources as their natural sources of food become limited. This means tigers are increasingly relying on livestock to sustain their diets. In retaliation, local farmers are either killing or capturing these creatures to protect their own space. “Conflict” tigers, as they are called, are typically sold on the black market, with many being culled for their skin and bones for the lucrative Chinese medicinal trade.
Tiger parts have been used in traditional Chinese medicines and other Asian cultures for centuries, if not millennia. Tiger claws, teeth and whiskers are also used as good luck charms. While the international trade of tiger parts has been banned since 1987, the black market for these animals still persists and is as strong as ever.
Apart from poaching, tiger survival is largely being affected by climate change as well. One of the world’s largest remaining tiger populations in the Sundarbans is currently under threat from climatic shifts. The Sundarbans — a large mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh — harbors Bengal tigers and protects the coast from damaging ocean storms. However, rising sea levels are threatening to wipe out this vast forest ecosystem and will likely take the last remaining large tiger habitat along with it.
A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found if mitigation efforts fail to reverse the effects of climate change, sea level rise of a foot could destroy the Sundarbans tiger habitat by 2070.
Of the nine subspecies of tiger (Panthera tigris) that roamed the Earth a hundred years ago, four (Indo-Chinese, Malayan, Bengal, Amur) are endangered, two (Sumatran, South China) are critically endangered and three (Bali, Javan, Caspian) are extinct. These three have only become extinct within the past 80 years.
With the growing threat of tiger extinction, more needs to be done now to stop and reverse tiger loss; a November 2010 Tiger Summit in Russia looked to do just that. The summit, which included 13 countries that are home to wild tiger populations, adopted goals to double the number of wild tigers by 2022. However, for such an ambitious plan to work, poaching needs to be halted and habitats need to be protected and improved.
Looking to do its part to protect and preserve the tiger population, Nepal has armed its soldiers with M16 assault rifles to comb the Himalayan forests and grasslands in search of poachers. It is estimated the country has less than 250 remaining Bengal tigers and the government is doing what is necessary to preserve these remaining majestic cats.
In Nepal, where the average income is only two or three US dollars per day, many international gangs pay local Nepalese upwards of $7,500 US for just one tiger skin and $3,500 per pound or more for tiger bones. Many do this despite the risk of being caught and imprisoned for up to 15 years.
Nepal’s criminal investigation unit established a wildlife unit just two years ago to bring tiger poaching to an end. Pravin Pokharel, a former leader of the unit said in a statement to The Guardian the investigative program detects about 15 to 20 percent of the tiger poaching that occurs in the country.
Along with the help of conservation and anti-poaching programs established by the WWF, tiger numbers are now stabilizing and slightly increasing in Nepal. Last year, it was estimated there were 37 tigers in Bardia National Park, doubling the 18 estimated tigers found there in 2009.
The 2010 campaign — dubbed Tigers Alive — to double the tiger population by 2022 is garnering much attention. Whiskas brand has offered an estimated $750,000 US through the sale of specially-marked packs of cat food to help the tiger cause. Some of that money will be spent on providing anti-poaching bases in Bardia with solar power so they can be manned 24 hours per day.
The WWF has also started a gun retrieval program that pays villagers around $5 US for each weapon it hands over to authorities, helping to keep them out of the hands of potential poachers.
Also, local volunteers are being trained how to set up camera traps to monitor tigers in the wild. In just the past few months, seven tigers and nine rhinos were caught on camera traps in a 2-mile-long area of the Khata corridor.