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1 February 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 10:57am

Year of the Tiger: why the big cat’s return holds hope for humanity

Efforts to protect the solitary predators show conservationists how much they can achieve by working together.

By India Bourke

Mysterious, solitary, supreme. The tiger, perhaps above all other creatures, stalks the human imagination. Those born under its sign are endowed with the qualities of “born leaders”, according to the Chinese Zodiac. For commercial brands, its aloof allure sells everything from Gucci to petrol. For strongmen politicians like Vladimir Putin (born in the year of the ambition-seeking Dragon), an association with the tiger’s prowess is a tool of soft power — as everything from memes to birthday gifts seek to suggest.

These associations with independence and exceptionalism have not served the tiger well, however. As the Lunar Year of the Tiger begins today, six organisations have released a joint vision for tiger conservation. From Karnataka in India to Kanchanaburi in Thailand, numbers of the once near-extinct species are rising: there may now be up to 4,500 across ten countries, the NGOs have announced, up from as few as 3,200 twelve years ago. But their position is still fragile and their return has been hard fought. And even as wildlife groups herald the tentative success, it is not self-reliance that the tiger’s recovery has to teach but interconnection.

“If we save tigers, we can save ourselves,” says Dale Miquelle from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Such is the importance of big cat predators to wider ecosystems that measures taken to protect tigers ensure the survival of entire forest habitats, Miquelle explains from his far-eastern base near Russia’s coast with Japan. In turn, climate change can be stemmed and viruses kept away from humanity.

While past tiger conservation efforts have leaned on the species’ iconic status to secure interest and funding, they are now turning to a different narrative: one in which the flourishing of the whole is inextricable from individual success or failure. So as this Year of the Tiger progresses, what can the journey to this point teach?

In 1794 the poet William Blake celebrated the tiger’s “fearsome symmetry” in a poem that compared its noble otherness to the divine. Yet in the tiger’s native India, British trading interests were expanding and colonising wildlife alongside people. Between 1875 and 1925, an estimated 80,000 Bengal tigers were killed by British hunters, eager for trophies of conquest.

By the start of the twentieth century there were only about 100,000 tigers left in the world and fifty years later that number would collapse further still. In Russia tigers were decimated by the clearance of land for agriculture and settlement, first by the Tsars and then the Soviet Union. In China the killing of tigers as “pests” intensified with Mao’s destructive Great Leap Forward, then surged in line with demand for traditional Chinese medicine. Interest in such “medicine”, which includes using tiger bone to treat ulcers, has since spread throughout the region — fuelling poaching and leaving countless dead animals in its wake.

In 2010, the last Year of the Tiger, the global population was estimated to have crashed to just 3 per cent of its 1900 level. In response, 13 countries where tigers still roamed free gathered in St Petersburg to form the Global Tiger Initiative. Their aim? To double wild tiger numbers by 2022 by ending poaching and illegal trade; protecting and restoring habitats; and co-operating across borders and within local communities.

Although the aim has not been met, in terms of halting the overall loss the initiative has created “roaring” opportunities for future success, says the WWF. India’s tiger population has doubled since 2006. In China, the world’s largest tiger protection area has been created along the Russia-China-North Korea border.

The gains have not been uniform, however, and entire populations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been wiped out in the same period. Poaching is central to this loss, and the growth of “tiger farms” is only supporting and driving further demand, NGOs warn. Meanwhile, climate change and encroachment continue to diminish habitats and put the creatures at ever greater risk of conflict with local villages and farms.

The countries where tigers range will convene in Russia again this September to set new targets. By 2034, the aim should be to secure and increase existing tiger populations, and expand the range in which they can exist, according to the joint vision of the six NGOs. Measurable three-to-four year milestones should be developed, they suggest, as should national wildlife crime task forces.

Saving tigers does not only require landscapes to be given protected status and poaching to be outlawed, it also needs “boots on the ground” to enforce those safeguards, warns John Goodrich, senior director of the tiger programme at Panthera, a big cat protection organisation.

Increasing rangers’ salaries will probably be a difficult request in a year where recovery from the pandemic and rising gas prices are biting into national budgets. But discussions at the Cop15 UN biodiversity summit this April could help to establish how bigger and better funding mechanisms can fill this gap.

The change in attitudes to tiger conservation in civil society perhaps gives cause for optimism. Organisations that once competed for resources now collaborate, as the joint vision demonstrates. In this regard and others, it seems time to throw off the species’ old associations with supremacy and otherness — and embrace its unifying “umbrella” status.

“Tigers’ rising numbers have demonstrated our ability to come together for greater good,” says Miquelle. “And that should give us hope for ourselves.”

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