Far from the present discussions around tiger trade that could deter useful initiatives for the big felines, a concrete solution for tigers’ future in relation with realities of their biology, present situation and particularly true numbers of both wild and captive tigers, past distributions and possibilities for the future in correlation with climatic changes is hereby briefly exposed. In correlation with a new beginning or resurrection of specific tiger cultures, areas that are wild and rich in tiger preys and poor in potential tiger competitors might offer hospitality for rewilded (feral) tigers on four continents.
Wild tigers are nowadays at the margin of extinction. Perhaps less than 1500 individuals stay alive in Asia. For India, they were almost 3000 in 1984 (end of the Gandhi era, and probably less than 700 at the present time. For other tiger zones on this continent, the situation seems to be (if possible) even more dramatic.
Tigers were more than 300 000 in whole Asia before 1750, and still 100 000 in 1900.
In China, they were 40 000 at the same date, 4000 in 1949, and clearly less than 30 at the present time (none of them seen since decades, only a few paw prints).The decline of tigers was firstly caused by massive European hunting during the 19th century, and simultaneous disruption in local tiger cultures in front of the death (and so the incredible defeat) of a sacred animal revered up to this period like a god.
Since the last decades, the big striped cats were rather victims of a tremendous human destruction of wild nature everywhere in Asia.
Nowadays, a big controversy about trade of tiger products occurs, usually presented as China versus other concerned countries, the former destroying ultimate wild tigers of the latter through its interior trade market and its continental ramifications.
While such a debate has its legitimacy, its media dominance unhappily makes it more difficult to take it to the public more concrete alternative solutions to effectively assure safety for the present and the future of wild tigers.
Indeed, if intelligences stay polarized by byzantin quarrels, mankind is quickly going to loose the most powerful incarnation of beauty and sacredness that Nature has ever produced.
Classical formulas of protection are henceforth clearly insufficient to save the big cat in the very short term. Without any bravery nor imagination, the doomed destiny of tigers is sealed.
It is now high time to consider facts beyond fruitless and dangerous ideological infatuations that kill intelligence and imagination.
So, I would like to make the following points on the situation concerning trade controversy, and then bring a strategy to secure the immediate futures of the tigers as well as in the long term, with concrete implications of ecological policies which aims to strengthen, relocate, or implant wild (or rewilded) tiger populations on four continents.
Since at last two decades, trade of tiger products is at the center of discussions on tiger extinction or safety Between 1984 and 1993, a huge breakdown in wild tiger populations was heavily linked to this trade implicating far eastern countries, firstly China. In the same time, Thaïland, and then China, created «tiger farms» both with originally zoo tigers and possibly some captured wild individuals in the case of Thailand. Beginnings of these structures were difficult (genetic impurity and poverty, high mortality, chaotic breeding techniques) and are clearly dangerous for future of tigers in the wild if mixed with them.
In 1993, an international trade ban was passed by CITES in unanimity, which applies to all CITES members, China included. At this epoch, it was an urgent, indispensable and fruitful measure.
Despite this, since this period and up to now, situation of wild tigers has continued from bad to worse, and for many reasons. First of all is the absence of political determination in this domain (with the exception of Russia between 1994 and 1998, with immediate and spectacular results).
Tiger farms had made significant evolution in their practices, with much more efficiency in their breeding technology, decreasing mortality and increasing numbers of viable captive tigers (at least 5000 individuals, and probably more (many breedings are not recorded). Some of them have more than 1000 tigers (Guilin, which is also a bear center) or almost 1000 (Harbin siberian tigers center).
The development of tiger parks which were also breeding centers was important in Europe and Australia, and explosive in USA. In the US, captive tigers are even more numerous than in China and number probably much more than 10 000 distributed in hundreds of structures, where breeding is free.
Since several years, pressures from owners of the Chinese breeding centers have increased to push Chinese government to lift the ban, what it is credibly going to do soon.
Their arguments are now significantly different from what they were 15 years ago. Particularly, a legalization of the trade would induce breakdown in prices, which would be an important and dissuasive economical barrier for potential poachers. Moreover, a massive production of tigers in now well controlled conditions (up to 100 000 individuals in next decades) could induce programs of rehabilitation of wild zones and protection for wild tigers.
This point of view has been synthesized by the Indian researcher Barun Mitra, published by
NY Times, 15 August 2006, under the title «Sell the tiger to save it».
On 13 June 2007, The CITES convention on wild animals trade decided, after a vigorous intervention by the Indian tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar, to prolonge the ban on tiger trade, and to emphasize re-conversion of tiger farms.
Barun Mitra expressed his skepticism in an article «Can a trade convention save the Tiger» published by China Daily on 22 June.
From 1 to 8 July, a scientific workshop about tiger farms hosted bythe Chinese government took place. Antagonistic positions already listened at the CITES convention were heard-from the international tiger NGO coalition to maintain the ban, and from Wang Wei , Director of Wildlife Conservation of China to lift it (opinions published in China Daily on 8 July).
For the first time, in any way, tiger farms could be visited by opponents to view their existence, and doors of frozen chambers full of stockpiled tiger carcasses collected for years in the attempt to be used after the end of the ban were opened, and photos could be taken.
In Newsweek (30 July) other significant arguments were presented. The ban defenders indicated that political determination was the most efficient way to protect tigers (spectacular results both with Siberian tigers in years 1950 to 1980 and then in the 1994 -1998 period, and for Indian tigers in the 1973 – 1984 period).
The trade defenders explained that crocodiles farms had widely contributed to save wild crocodiles . (While this is true, tiger farms are much more expensive to operate, and tigers are much more complicated to free with success when it’s necessary, especially to free many tigers at the same time and in the same area compared to crocodiles).
Nowadays, the controversy goes on, there is persistence of formally strong disagreement though we are in a very different situation than that of 1993, and arguments expressed by antagonists are much more precise and also much nearer from each other than they were years ago.
BUT MEANWHILE, TIGERS WILL GO TO THEIR EXTINCTION FOREVER.
Realities and Solutions
There are now few wild tigers in the wild, certainly much less than 2000, and credibly less than 1500, with half of them remaining in India.
Official numbers are fantastic overestimates. They are economical propaganda for administrations (stimulation of tourism) and justifications of fundraisers for big NGOs like WWF.
Indian government continues to claim there are still 2600/3000 tigers in the wild on its territory, with administrative reports founded on incoherent and incredible census. This has been strongly denied by all Indian specialists since at least 20 years (Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal, Billy Arjan Singh). An independent census realized by the Wildlife Institute of India and published in the Times of India on 24 May shows that, for 27 (out of 38) Indian tiger zones, 500 individuals are still present.
For Siberian tigers, official numbers of 500 individuals are corroborated by WWF direction, whose propaganda aims to show the action is a success, but denied by all local actors (V. Yudin, E. Smirnov, officers of Amba brigades) as well as some WWF members in private communications (no more than 50 Siberian Tigers in any way).
On the contrary, there are many captive tigers everywhere in the world, particularly both in China (thousands – and potentially tens of thousands in a decade – in concentrated structures) and in the USA (more than 10 000 in smallest structures, thousands for Texas - 1 tiger for 2000 inhabitants, highest tiger density in the world -).
Globally, there are at least 12 captive tigers, for 1 wild tiger, with number of captive bred tigers increasing and number of wild tigers decreasing. Moreover, remaining wild tigers are nowadays – or in the immediate future - threatened in their last sanctuaries by climatic changes. Quick impact on Himalaya is going to break down living systems of the immense Gange and Mekong deltas…
Biological capacities of tigers are truly encouraging: indeed, these animals, where not persecuted, have a formidable strength of resilience. They can adapt to various environments, under almost all types of climates, latitude, altitude, hygrometry degrees, with arid, aquatic (and even marine) and densely human populated environments included.
Their demographical reactions to face extinction during an ecological crisis is more than impressive, and reproductive behaviors of the females radically change in these contexts with spectacular results.
Moreover, captive tigers may be rewilded. There can of course be feral tigers as there are feral cats (with of course, cared needed in preparation of both animals and new environments). It has already been shown by Viktor Yudin in Siberia, Billy Arjan Singh in India, and of course Li Quan’s (with her unique experiment on South China Tigers by relocating them to South Africa) rewilding and reintroduction (inside former South China Tiger habitat to be restored) project. The Times have published an article on this experiment more recently on 14 July.
Small organizations with courageous and determined goals ran by individuals like that Li Quan -Save China’s Tigers or that of the French searcher Véronique Pestel «Pohkao, tigers and men» who restores tiger culture as a whole in a Cambodian village, are certainly lights on the road of safety for tigers.
In the past, tigers have occupied huge areas far to the North, beyond 70th parallel (Lyakhov islands, to the South (at least Borneo) to the East (Alaska) and to the West (ukrainian boards of Black Sea).
The final question is now who actually wants tiger survival.
Both historical and present responsibilities in the situation of tigers are enormous for at least China, India and Russia, but perhaps even more for Europe (destruction of 90% of wild tigers inducing fatal ruptures of local communities with their tiger culture) and America (owner of more captive tigers on its territory than all other countries of the world put together).
As we know about biological realities of tigers and the aptitude for feralization of domestic cats, a big and powerful country where authorities claim they want save tigers can easily do it.
It seems that future of tigers may be assured by vigorous protection politics both in India and Russia where they have brought spectacular results in the past.
Moreover, China for one part, USA for the other part, could (and so might) change objectives of their breeding centers. Both are able to obtain quickly and in healthy conditions huge numbers of tigers (tens of thousands individuals). A significant proportion of them must submit massive rewilding plans before implantations in compatible and prepared wild areas of these two countries, but also in India and Russia if necessary.
USA might even have the first role in this domain, as they have, at the present time, both the more numerous tigers and the largest wild areas.
Furthermore, Li Quan’s project also shows that Southern Africa has now both adequate big pristine areas and also the best wild life managers in the world…
Further more, climatic change causing changes in Mekong and Ganga deltas implies the necessity for immediate studies of European and American ability to utilize arctic areas as refuges for big felines and big herbivores (Sergueï Zimov in oriental Yakoutia and Josh Dolan – Massachusetts Institute of Technology- in Northern America have already engaged in similar projects). Of course, many ecological questions must be considered such as avoidance of the bears’ competition to realize proper work with durable and positive results.
And Europe, which is perhaps the utmost responsible in the present situation of tigers, might consider that extinct Caspian tigers were also European tigers.
Time has come to stop emotional arguments but take concrete actions.
If not only Indians, Chinese and Russians but also American governments as well as the European parliament actually want the tigers have a safe future, they can immediately and concretely act on that.
IF THEY WANT, THEY CAN.
Nowadays, they must prove that they want it really.