Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tiger Populations Plummet

This may be the Year of the Tiger, but the tiger population is facing a huge crisis. Wild tiger populations in Southeast Asia have all but collapsed, only an estimated 350 remaining. Tigers are threatened by both illegal hunting due to demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine as well as habitat destruction and fragmentation (the artificial separation of habitats by deforestation and building). The next Year of the Tiger is in 2022, and it could very well be that there are no more wild tigers in Southeast Asia by that time. World tiger populations are also dropping, now numbering at about 3,200, down from an estimated 20,000 in the 1980s. Interestingly, Russian Prime Minister Vladimer Putin himself is going to be hosting a tiger conservation summit in Vladivostak this September.

Tigers, besides being amazing creatures, are a "flagship species." Flagship species are the major, headliner animals that live in particular habitats, and the health of their population gives an indication of the overall health of the ecosystem. Also, flagship species tend to be the large, flashy, popular animals that people are more interested in saving rather than the more "homely" creatures that count on the same ecosystem. By saving flagship species, you save many other species as well.

Tiger conservation certainly is a difficult proposition. Tigers are large, aggressive carnivores that are a threat to the people and livestock that live their habitat. That alone makes locals less concerned about tiger welfare than those of us who don't need to worry about tigers in our own backyards. Also, the long tradition of the use of tiger parts in traditional medicine is ingrained into the culture of the people. Deforestation and habitat loss are difficult problems that we face around the world, not just in Southeast Asia. Significant funding for tiger conservation would need to go into education of the locals in alternative agricultural practices and better access to Western medicine. A national park system such as has been present in the United States would be ideal, but lots of money would be needed to maintain it and keep up patrols for poachers.

Whatever is decided upon, action must be taken quickly. This magnificent creature, and the other animals that live in this habitat, are highly endangered, and may be extinct in the wild within the not-so-distant future.

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