How To Save A Tiger (Episode 34)

Ep. 34 | How To Save A Tiger
Ep. 34 | How To Save A Tiger
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The sun brought forth a symphony of birdlife, gently waking us from our slumber. Today was going to be different. I could feel it. The previous expedition into the jungle gave us little more than a few peacock sightings and some deer strolling along riverbanks. But today, we were going to see the animal we traveled thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of in the wild.

After breakfast, we loaded up in our safari truck and headed off to Bardia National Park, infamous for its diverse array of wildlife.

The day was hot and humid. Smoke from countless wildfires burned our eyes. Sweat dripped down our backs as we quietly swept our binoculars from side to side, doing our best to will wildlife into our sights.

The morning resulted in nothing more than dusty shirts and tracks that disappeared into the tall grass, but we were not swayed. We were in the terai, home to Asian elephants, Greater One-Horned rhinos, more bird species than you can possibly count, and the king of big cats.

Stopping for lunch, we settled underneath the shade of a tree along a riverbank. It was blazing hot in the midday sun and we knew we had a chance to spot what we were looking for cooling off in the clear, flowing water. We began to unpack our meals and settle down for a break from hours of searching. 

And then, there she was. 

A gorgeous tigress in her prime peered out from the brush and gracefully entered the water. We dropped everything in our hands and quietly rushed to the riverside for a better view. She watched us as she silently made her way across the river to the opposite bank. With one last look at us, she melted into the jungle.

We sat in awe and elation, high-fiving each other and recounting everything that just occurred. Then, to our amazement, a massive male came into view, following the female with every intention of mating with her. 

We nearly lost our minds. 

He was more confident and less timid than the female, and had no reservations to stay awhile and soak in the cool river.

After he was satisfied with his river session, he resumed his pursuit of the female and watched us as he stood and strolled to the opposite side of the riverbank.

And just like that, he was gone, lost in the tall grass and twisting trees.

Once we were certain no additional tigers were going to bless us with their presence, we returned to our tree and sat down to eat our now-warm lunch. We didn’t mind. Our wildlife dreams had just come true and we were high on life. No bush lunch had every tasted so good.

The day didn’t end there. 

Three more tigers graced us with their presence, each encounter unique and unforgettable. At sundown, we made our way back to the lodge and celebrated with cold beers.

These wildlife experiences were, hands down, some of the best in my life. But I quickly learned that it came at a cost. Living with tigers is not easy, which a Westerner like me didn’t fully understand until I visited Bardia, even with my years studying and working in conservation. 

So, why should we save tigers? That’s the topic of today’s show. In celebration of World Tiger Day on July 29th, and I felt it made perfect sense to dive deep into this question and share with you all what I’ve learned in my studies and international travels. 

Why should we save tigers?

While this question may seem obvious, I think it is important to explore.

Tigers are apex predators. Their presence ensures a healthy balance between predators, mesopredators, prey, vegetation, and soil stability. 

Thus, removing tigers can cause ecosystem collapse. 

Herbivore populations skyrocket without predators keeping their numbers in check and vegetation quickly disappears under the pressure of increased grazing. The land erodes from the lack of plant systems holding soil in place, and waterways fill with loose debris. 

Aside from the significant ecosystem value they hold, tigers are revered across the globe and play integral roles in several religions. In Hinduism, for example, the powerful and beloved goddess Durga is often depicted riding a tiger. 

Furthermore, tigers bring in tourism dollars for communities that live alongside these big cats, giving them an alternative income that doesn’t involve consumptive industries. 

And…most importantly… TIGERS ARE INSANELY COOL!

The original tiger (Panthera zdanskyi) evolved 2.5 million years ago in Southeast Asia and was similar in stature to jaguars and leopards. When tigers’ main prey, cervids, grew in size and range, the ancient cat followed. The increase in prey size is hypothesized to be the reason why tigers evolved their massive frame.

These big cats are ambush specialists and the largest feline species. Male Amur tigers can weigh up to a staggering 660 pounds!

Unlike your 10-pound domestic kitty, tigers love water and can be found cooling off from the day’s heat in a pond or river.

Tigers are solitary big cats and don’t enjoy each other’s company (although, tiger behavior in Nepal is making us question this. Check out Episode 24 to learn more). A male tiger has a huge territory that overlaps multiple females’ territories. Since tigers need lots of space to find enough prey, these cats are considered an umbrella species. Protecting tigers, therefore, protects all wildlife that coexists with them.

What are tigers’ biggest threats?

The most pressing threat varies based on specific tiger populations, but in general, wild tigers today face challenges with poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation, and a declining prey base.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade of Tiger Parts

Tigers are highly prized commodities on the black market. Their bones are believed to have healing powers in some Asian cultures, and tiger skins are bought by people with more money than they know what to do with. To demonstrate the lucrativeness of the tiger part industry, in 2019, two men in China were arrested for smuggling nine tiger skins into the country from Myanmar. The tiger skins were valued at 4 million yuan, which is equivalent to around 619,000 USD. They also had illegal weapons, bullets, and methamphetamine in their trunk, demonstrating how the wildlife trade is commonly linked to other forms of crime.

Human-Tiger Conflict

In addition to poaching, human-tiger conflict is also a prominent threat to tiger survival. This issue is more difficult to solve because the causes of conflict are commonly unique to specific regions.

For example, in India, many native peoples have been forcibly displaced from their homes to make room for tiger reserves. While some communities were given resources to start new lives, not all people were given the same level of treatment. 

In Nepal, the loss of tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the country’s most important industries, had devastating effects on local communities. The significant loss of income forced people to illegally visit national parks to collect natural resources, putting them in imminent danger. Multiple people died during our two-week stay from entering the jungle alone and coming in contact with a tiger. It was the most in-your-face conservation experience of my life.

Tiger Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Wild tigers have lost 95% of their historic range and number less than 4,000 individuals. The habitat they have left is fragmented, making dispersal pretty much impossible. Lack of movement halts gene flow, leading to inbreeding in smaller populations. Inbreeding is bad for species survival, m’kay. 

What about the huge number of privately bred tigers in the US? Can they go back into the wild?

Good ol’ Tiger King put this issue on the world stage. I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately no – privately bred tigers in non-accredited facilities will never be released back into the wild. 

I’ll explain.

Most private tiger breeders have no idea what lineage is in their cats.

Why does this matter?

Let’s imagine you’re a world-class horse breeder. You’ve diligently spent your entire career researching and purchasing the top horses with the best genetics. It’s finally time to match your prize Thoroughbred female with a stallion. The last thing you would ever do is allow your best female to breed with a donkey. The offspring’s genetics would be far from advantageous and the foal would be considered useless by the horse-breeding community. 

The same goes for tigers. No conservation biologist would release a captive-bred tiger back into the wild to procreate with the local population (assuming it survives long enough to breed). Who knows what genetic diseases are in the cat. With tiger numbers so low in the wild, one deadly disease could cause irreversible damage to the species. 

Get this: not one captive-bred tiger has been successfully released to the wild.

Additionally, when it comes to saving wild tigers, most private big cat facilities do not make any contributions to conservation efforts, monetarily or otherwise. 

The exception to this is AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) accredited facilities. These organizations are the Rolls Royces of the animal exhibition industry. Out of the 2800 wildlife facilities registered with the USDA, less than 10% are AZA-accredited. These organizations donate more than $230 million per year to field conservation efforts worldwide and directly support tiger conservation through the AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP). I used to work at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium and the Dallas Zoo – both great organizations doing awesome work for wild populations.

What is being done to protect tigers?

Outside of the tremendous amount of research being conducted on all things tiger, some serious initiatives and projects have appeared in recent years that are moving the needle in tigers’ favor.

Doubling Tigers Initiative – Tx2

If you listened to Episode 23 with Jack Kinross, then you’re familiar with the Doubling Tigers Initiative. If you haven’t had a chance to listen (yet, right?), then I’ll give you a quick project rundown. In 2010, the Chinese year of the tiger, leaders from 13 countries with current or recent tiger populations came together to formulate a plan to double tiger numbers by the next Chinese year of the tiger in 2022. Lots of resources and support have gone into this initiative and tiger numbers have definitely increased, notably in Nepal, India, and Bhutan. While this initiative has been great for tiger numbers, it hasn’t come for free. I absolutely love hearing tigers numbers are higher than they’ve been in decades, but it has created some unforeseen problems. I highly recommend listening to Jack share hear his point of view and come to your own conclusion about doubling tiger numbers. 

Wildlife Corridors & Protected Areas

As mentioned previously, inbreeding is no bueno for population viability. To help with this, wildlife corridors are being built between tiger habitats, allowing individuals to move out of their former territory and into new areas. This is very exciting and important for avoiding gene sinkholes and population collapse. New boyfriends and girlfriends are necessary for shaking up the gene pool! 

While we were in Nepal, we learned about the Terai Arc Landscape, an ambitious conservation project. Between 2015 and 2025, Nepal is building a massive wildlife corridor that’ll extend the length of the terai (900km) and connect the region’s six protected areas, all the way from Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in the west to beyond Parsa Wildlife Reserve in the east. Many other endangered species are benefiting from this corridor, including rhinos, elephants, and water buffalo.

Education

I’ve said many times that education and women’s rights will fix almost all of the world’s issues, and tiger conservation is no exception. I’ll dive into women’s rights in another episode, and want to spend a few moments now discussing education’s role. 

We only protect what we understand, and to understand, we must first be exposed to why tigers are important for our wellbeing, as well as how to live with them. For communities living with these seriously dangerous big cats, it’s vitally important to understand their ecology, behaviors, and how to best avoid conflict with them (AKA, not be attacked and killed. It’s that serious). Jack Kinross’ organization, WildTiger, distributes coexistence guidelines to students in villages surrounding Bardia National Park to teach children and their families how to safely visit forests.

Community-Based Conservation

I freaking love community-based conservation. When done correctly, CBC is one of the strongest tools in the conservation toolbox. Just in case you’re not familiar with this concept, CBC is led by local communities and is designed so that the maximum number of community members benefit by the sustainable use of their natural resources. Think of this approach as bottom-up conservation versus top-down. No one knows a landscape or wildlife better than the people that live with them, after all.

I’ve seen few countries pull this off better than Nepal. In Chitwan, we saw the power of community-based conservation firsthand. The Baghmara Community Forest borders the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park and is managed on a volunteer basis by community members. They develop everything – forest conservation and regeneration, wildlife protection, ecotourism, education, and community development. Through their efforts, the land has been restored to its former glory and is home to many endangered species including rhinos, tigers, and the gharial. People have greatly benefited, too, making Baghmara one of the most successful CBC programs in the country. To hear more, check out Episode 24 and listen to my chat with the President of Baghmara, Jitu Tamang, and the President of the Community-Based Anti-Poaching Unit, Bishnu Thapa.

What can I do to help?

Great question! I’m so glad you asked. 🙂

There are so many ways you can help tigers in the wild.

  1. Travel

    Traveling responsibly is one of the best ways to save tigers. When you travel, you are incentivizing local communities to keep their tigers alive and healthy. Travel has gotten significantly easier and cheaper in the last decade. I suggest booking round trip tickets to India and/or Nepal and visiting a couple of top tiger national parks (Ranthambore, Kahna, Bardia, Chitwan, etc.). I promise it will change your life.  
  1. Support incredible conservation organizations. Some of my favorites are:
    1. Panthera
    2. World Wildlife Fund
    3. WildTiger in Nepal
  1. Listen to Rewildology’s “Nepal: Coexisting with Giants” series.

    Sam Helle, Jack Kinross, and Dr. Babu Ram are tiger experts and openly share their knowledge about tiger conservation. The more you know, the better decisions you can make.
  1. Visit accredited animal facilities. 

    If you search “things to do near me” and a wildlife facility pops up, take the time to see if they’re accredited. 
    I already mentioned the AZA in the US. Sanctuaries have a similar accrediting body called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. I highly recommend searching the whole website to see if the organization has either of these accreditations. If not, I strongly suggest not going.

    If they advertise cub petting or close interactions with big cats, I super strongly suggest not going. 
  1. Be a smart consumer.

    As with most things in life, be a smart consumer. Take a couple of moments to double-check if the product you are purchasing is detrimental to wildlife. 
    We can ensure apex predators like tigers remain on this planet. After all, we need them to keep our ecosystems in balance, waterways clean, and other species in their habitat protected.

What are we if we let one of Earth’s most magnificent creatures disappear?

Do one small thing today that can help save tigers. Share this episode/post, talk to friends and family, donate to great organizations if you have the means, and volunteer in your free time.

Together, we’ll rewild the planet.

Resources

AlmostAnthropology. (2020, June 28). Durga’s Tiger: A Goddess and Her Cat. Almost Anthropology. https://almostanthropology.com/2020/05/03/durgas-tiger-a-goddess-and-her-cat/.

Armstrong, E. E., Khan, A., Taylor, R. W., Gouy, A., Greenbaum, G., Thiéry, A., Kang, J. T. L., Redondo, S. A., Prost, S., Barsh, G., Kaelin, C., Phalke, S., Chugani, A., Gilbert, M., Miquelle, D., Zachariah, A., Borthakur, U., Reddy, A., Louis, E., … Ramakrishnan, U. (2019). Recent evolutionary history of tigers highlights contrasting roles of genetic drift and selection. https://doi.org/10.1101/696146 

Association of Zoos & Aquariums | AZA.org, http://www.aza.org/.

Carter, N. H., Gurung, B., Viña, A., Campa III, H., Karki, J. B., & Liu, J. (2013). Assessing spatiotemporal changes in tiger habitat across different land management regimes. Ecosphere, 4(10). https://doi.org/10.1890/es13-00191.1 

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, 3 Apr. 2019, www.sanctuaryfederation.org

Gratwicke, B., Mills, J., Dutton, A., Gabriel, G., Long, B., Seidensticker, J., Wright, B., You, W., & Zhang, L. (2008). Attitudes Toward Consumption and Conservation of Tigers in China. PLoS ONE, 3(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002544

Lamichhane, S., Joshi, R., Poudel, B., & Subedi, P. (2020). Role of Community in Leading Conservation: Effectiveness, Success and Challenges of Community-Based Anti-Poaching Unit in Nepal. Grassroots Journal of Natural Resources, 3(4), 94–109. https://doi.org/10.33002/nr2581.6853.03046

Mazák, J. H., Christiansen, P., & Kitchener, A. C. (2011). Oldest Known Pantherine Skull and Evolution of the Tiger. PLoS ONE, 6(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0025483 

Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation. (2015). Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2025: Terair Arc Landscape. https://conservationcorridor.org/cpb/Ministry-of-Forests-and-Soil-Conservation-Nepal_2015.pdf.

Natesh, M., Atla, G., Nigam, P., Jhala, Y. V., Zachariah, A., Borthakur, U., & Ramakrishnan, U. (2017). Conservation priorities for endangered Indian tigers through a genomic lens. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-09748-3 

Nijman, V., Morcatty, T., Smith, J. H., Atoussi, S., Shepherd, C. R., Siriwat, P., Nekaris, K. A.-I., & Bergin, D. (2019). Illegal wildlife trade – surveying open animal markets and online platforms to understand the poaching of wild cats. Biodiversity, 20(1), 58–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/14888386.2019.1568915

Nyhus, P.j., et al. “Dangerous Animals in Captivity: Ex Situ Tiger Conflict and Implications for Private Ownership of Exotic Animals.” Zoo Biology, vol. 22, no. 6, 2003, pp. 573–586., doi:10.1002/zoo.10117.

Rather, T. A., Kumar, S., & Khan, J. A. (2020). Multi-scale habitat modelling and predicting change in the distribution of tiger and leopard using random forest algorithm. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-68167-z

Thapa, B., Aryal, A., Roth, M., & Morley, C. (2017). The contribution of wildlife tourism to tiger conservation (Panthera tigris tigris). Biodiversity, 18(4), 168–174. https://doi.org/10.1080/14888386.2017.1410443

“Tiger: Panthera.” Panthera.org, www.panthera.org/cat/tiger.

“The Truth About ‘Tiger King’ And Cats in Captivity.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/blog/the-truth-about-tiger-king-and-cats-in-captivity/.

Transboundary Conservation Landscapes: Enhancing understanding, operation and efficacy. WWF. (2021, May 23). https://tigers.panda.org/reports/?uNewsID=3554416. 

Uhm, D. P. van, & Wong, R. W. Y. (2021, June 29). Chinese organized crime and the illegal wildlife trade: diversification and outsourcing in the Golden Triangle. Trends in Organized Crime. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12117-021-09408-z.

van Uhm, D. P., & Wong, R. W. (2021). Chinese organized crime and the illegal wildlife trade: diversification and outsourcing in the Golden Triangle. Trends in Organized Crime. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-021-09408-z

Welcome to Baghmara Community Forest. Baghmara Community Forest. (n.d.). http://baghmaracommunityforest.org.np/index.php/en/.

Wikramanayake, E. D., Dinerstein, E., Robinson, J. G., Karanth, U., Rabinowitz, A., Olson, D., Mathew, T., Hedao, P., Conner, M., Hemley, G., & Bolze, D. (2008). An Ecology-Based Method for Defining Priorities for Large Mammal Conservation: The Tiger as Case Study. Conservation Biology, 12(4), 865–878. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.1998.96428.x

WWF. 2017. Beyond the Stripes: save tigers, save so much more. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland. 74 pp.

World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Double Tigers. WWF. https://www.worldwildlife.org/initiatives/double-tigers.

World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Tiger. WWF. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/tiger. 

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