Tigers Essay

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The largest of the big cats, the tiger Panthera tigris has become the global face of wildlife conservation. Tigers are carnivorous mammals classified in the biological family Felidae, characterized by territorial behavior and specialized hunting skills. The tiger is listed in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as a critically endangered species. One of the commonly voiced benefits of protecting tigers is that tiger conservation requires the protection of entire terrestrial ecosystems, essentially large areas of land, which in turn helps protect myriad other plants and animals that live in those ecosystems. Thus, tiger conservation efforts should ideally lead to larger gains in terms of the conservation of biodiversity and genetic diversity in the wild.

The recent history of tigers, however, continues to concern conservationists, biologists, wildlife managers, and others. Despite a complete ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1976 of the sale and use of tiger skin, bones, or any other body parts, tiger-derived products continue to be used in traditional Chinese medicines, for which the United States is the main market outside Asia. The plight of the tiger and the dramatic decline in the populations of its subspecies has gained worldwide attention since the 1960s. By then, the tiger was already on a dangerous path toward becoming an endangered species. It was systematically hunted either as a pest or as a trophy by Indian royalty and the colonial British elite in the 19th and early 20th century in undivided India, the epicenter of its historic range. These days, despite the protection that tigers receive within parks, sanctuaries, reserves, world heritage sites, protected forests, and occasionally as a result of community action to protect their habitat, they are coming in contact with humans as never before. Agricultural expansion; loss of forest cover to mining, dams, and other developmental projects; conversion of natural forest to plantations; poaching of prey species; and destructive activities due to human migration and population growth in areas bordering protected tiger habitat are some of the reasons contributing to the decline in tiger populations.

Historically distributed from the Caspian Sea in the west through south and southeast Asia and up to Siberia and northern China, the tiger is of- ten depicted in Asian mythology representing both good and evil. Durga, a female Hindu deity, is depicted in temples throughout India riding a tiger. Buddha is believed to have offered his body to a starving tigress. Regenerative powers have been attributed to tigers and people believe they are protectors, guardians, and the harbingers of peace. Tigers have inspired ecologists, such as George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and continue to inspire artists specializing in tiger paintings at the Ranthambhore School of Art.

India is home to the world’s largest population of tigers, estimated at between 3,000 and 4,700 individuals, while an optimistic estimate for the entire world pegs the number at about 7,500. Traditionally, in countries like Nepal and India, tiger numbers have been estimated by counting their pug marks; plaster casts or paper tracings of pug impressions are taken from the ground. This method is in some cases supplemented by the use of radio telemetry and DNA-based scat (tiger droppings) and hair analysis. In recent years, field trials of camera traps to photograph and record individual tigers have been conducted. Human error and technical issues mean that all methods have their limitations and tiger numbers are best viewed as estimates.

Only about five percent of the tigers alive at the beginning of the 20th century now roam the forests, grasslands, and swamps such as those of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and World Heritage Site, a mangrove forest straddling the India-Bangladesh border and one of the largest protected areas for the Bengal tiger as well as 260 bird species. Tigers can easily weigh up to 225 kilograms and consume one-sixth of their body weight in food at a time. A good prey-base is essential to maintain tigers in the wild and some studies indeed suggest that tiger densities can be predicted if the approximate number of prey is known. Cameras triggered when an infrared beam is broken by prowling tigers have been used by ecologists to determine that these largely solitary animals that thrive in dense undisturbed vegetation can reach densities as high as 16 tigers in a 100-kilometers-square area at Kaziranga National Park in India.

But such high tiger densities are uncommon, and three subspecies of the tiger have gone extinct in just the past 70 years. These were the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers. The five subspecies that remain are all threatened by poaching and loss of habitat. Of these five, the Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica, found largely in the easternmost provinces of Russia, China, and the Korean peninsula), the Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae, found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra), and the South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis, found in four Chinese provinces) have very low or declining populations, and are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. The Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti, found primarily in southeast Asia from Bangladesh to Vietnam) was recognized as a distinct subspecies as recently as 1968, and the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris, found largely in India with some in Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar), are both endangered. All tiger subspecies are listed in Appendix I of CITES and are protected in most of their range under CITES and national laws. The level and extent of enforcement of these laws, however, varies widely from country to country.

Bibliography:

  1. David Alderton, Wild Cats of the World (Facts on File, , 1993); Simon Barnes, Tiger! (St. Martin Press, 1994);
  2. Government of India, “Project Tiger,” projecttiger.nic.in (cited April 2006);
  3. George Schaller, The Deer and the Tiger (The University of Chicago Press, 1967);
  4. John Seidensticker, , Riding the Tiger: Tiger Conservation in Human-Dominated Landscapes (Cambridge University Press, 1999);
  5. John Seidensticker and Susan Lumpkin, Cats: Smithsonian Answer Book (Smithsonian Books, 2004);
  6. Valmik Thapar, Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent (University of California Press, 1997);
  7. Valmik Thapar, , Saving Wild Tigers, 1900-2000: The Essential Writings (Permanent Black, 2001);
  8. Alan Turner, The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives (Columbia University Press, 1997).

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