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A failproof strategy to save the tiger

Posted by: Dr. Deborah B. Jensen, President and CEO

Dr. Deborah B. Jensen.
Photo by Matt Hagen.
We have less than 20 years to save the tiger, or say goodbye to it forever. 

For millennia, the tiger has occupied a vibrant place in our collective consciousness—an icon revered in our mythology and folklore, enjoyed in our films and literature. Sadly, over the last century this magnificent animal has become one of the fastest-vanishing species on our planet. The decline owes to a lethal blend of high-class sport hunting; loss of forest habitat to logging, agriculture and growing urban areas; and a rampant increase in illegal poaching to supply tiger body parts for traditional medicine, ornamentation, and financing the black market drug trade.

Numbering as many as 100,000 in the early 1900s, as few as 3,200 tigers are left on the planet. In fact, today more tigers live in captivity than in the wild. Isolation, habitat loss and poaching threaten all tiger subspecies in the wild, decimating their ability to sustain viable populations. Sadly, the tiger is facing extinction within our lifetimes.

A recent Animal Planet survey of 73 countries found that tigers are the world’s favorite animal. And yet the tiger’s last strongholds stand on the edge of a precipice, largely due to human activity. (Credit: Derek Dammann Photography, taken at Cincinnati Zoo)

Still, I have hope for the tiger’s future. 

Once free to thrive across vast ranges of the Russian Far East to South and Southeast Asia, tigers are now constrained to just seven percent of their former habitat. (Credit: Panthera)

I’m so pleased to tell you that Woodland Park Zoo recently created a 10-year, $1 million collaboration with Panthera, the leading wild cat conservation group, the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and in-country tiger conservation experts. Of 42 Global Priority source sites, three are in Peninsular Malaysia’s central forest region where fewer than 500 Malayan tigers are struggling to survive. Together we will help carry out the Malayan government’s plan to double this number to a viable population level by 2022, the next year of the tiger, in and around the Taman Negara National Park, a pristine, 1,000,000-acre rainforest sanctuary. 

This is surely one of the toughest jobs we will ever love. Let me share with you how we’ll do it.

Priority sites in the Global Tiger Recovery Program. (Credit: Dinerstein et al., 2006)

In the past, tiger conservation efforts often lacked real political will and a proven strategy. Not so today. In recent years, a cadre of visionaries from biologists to lawmakers has figured out together where to focus our resources to reverse the downward trend. The holistic, top-down and bottom-up approach leverages expertise from all levels: communities, tiger-range nations, and national and international scientific, funding and policy bodies, including the World Bank and top nongovernmental organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution and World Wildlife Fund. 

No strategy can return the tiger to its former range, nor is that necessary to ensure its future. We know that, given enough space and resources, tigers are prolific breeders so bringing them back from the brink is possible. Our strategy is to secure and protect what scientists call source sites, or core breeding areas, to halt tiger decline and allow populations to recover to levels that can survive well into the future. On our watch, Malayan tigers will get the time, space and safety they need to breed and raise generations of healthy, young cubs to adulthood. 

Poaching is high in the park, so first we must stop the illegal killing of tigers and of the prey they need for food. The first stage of our work with Panthera, completed in June in collaboration with the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, trained 80 new, in-country rangers in improved intelligence gathering and anti-poaching techniques. Getting more boots and eyes on the ground, bolstered by modern communications technology, are the first steps to mapping core tiger breeding areas for protection.

From the northern to southern boundaries of Malaysia’s Central Forest Region, scientists and citizens are working to protect Malayan tigers’ core breeding areas from poachers, and connect critical corridors to preserve the habitat resources tigers need to survive. 

Camera trap technology helps identify key habitats tigers use to hunt and breed in the Taman Negara region. Tracked with modern software, the data allow rangers and researchers to map routes for effective anti-poaching patrols. (Credit: Ruben Clements/Rimba)

Having shared our vision with government officials, a green light is on for a new Tiger Field Team to deploy in October. The team will survey core cells of tigers, increase anti-poaching patrols, and help to protect the cats in a critical northern area that abuts the Kenjir Wildlife Corridor. Tigers and other wildlife need to cross this corridor in search of food, mates and shelter in other forest habitats.

A ranger in training collects data for mapping tigers’ use of core breeding areas in Taman Negara National Park. (Credit: Suzalinur Manja Bidin/MYCAT)

Saving the tiger is not just about saving one species. Behind the polar bear and the grizzly bear, the tiger is the third largest land carnivore. Like other umbrella species, it plays a key role in regulating the long-term health of its ecosystems. Taman Negara, a premier protected area, provides a home for countless tropical animals and plants, including 600 endangered Asian elephants. Our landscape-level conservation approach will protect the interconnectivity among various ecological systems on which diverse species, including humans, rely for survival.

Throughout 2013, our project team will continue assessing patrol effectiveness and begin the tiger survey while consolidating our decade-long plan to ensure a robust future for the cat in Taman Negara and surrounding reserves. Dr. Fred Koontz, WPZ’s Vice President of Field Conservation, just returned from working in the park with our Panthera and Malayan colleagues. Citizen conservationists are joining the effort, especially Malayan youth who are eager to contribute local knowledge and passionate voices to protect the tiger as a national, indeed global treasure. Stay tuned for his fascinating field report on this blog. In the meantime, I invite you to learn more about our project

Establishing official anti-poaching communications around the borders of Taman Negara National Park increases the legal authority with which to prosecute poachers. (Credit: Suzalinur Manja Bidin/MYCAT)

Tigers evoke a deep wonder in all of us. If we use it well, that wonder can inspire humanity to do great things. Even 9,000 miles away, our choices in the Northwest can make us part of tiger conservation in Malaysia. Through our More Wonder More Wild campaign, the second and final phase of the new Bamboo Forest Reserve exhibit complex will feature a new, naturalistic home for Malayan tigers and a hands-on Conservation Action Center. Millions of visitors will follow the progress of our tiger researchers and conservation scientists and join in the action to save wild tigers in Malaysia.

We will not let tigers fall. Woodland Park Zoo, Panthera and all our partners combine the know-how, will and broad public outreach to rescue this majestic cat’s future. I invite you to join us and leave a great legacy. By strengthening our collective role as stewards of our planet, we cannot fail.


Anonymous said…
Lions tigers and bears oh my they need your help.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for your work! I would add that "loss of forest habitat to logging, agriculture and growing urban areas" are manifestations of human overpopulation as are global warming, collapsing fisheries, soil depletion and a myriad of other threats to all species on earth. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King "Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases, which we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of billions of people who are its victims."
Jennifer Nodell said…
Tigers really need our help! I care a lot for them.
I was really happy to see how there numbers are getting larger.
I am sure you can make a difference.

Evan Nodell age 10
Anonymous said…
Thanks for writing, Evan! Everybody who loves tigers can see them at the zoo and at the same time make a difference for them in the wild. Kudos for your enthusiasm to care for tigers and to save them.