An article this week in The Los Angeles Times details the culling of the Pangolin, an armored anteater rather like a tropical aardvark. The thousand-or-so scales that protect the animal from its natural predators – big cats: lions, tigers, and leopards — are no match for poachers.
“…Because their meat is considered a delicacy and some believe that pangolin scales have medicinal qualities, 100,000 are estimated to be trafficked a year to China and Vietnam, amounting to over one million over the past decade. This makes it the most-trafficked animal in the world.”
Speaking of tigers, I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a boy, when I watched feeding time at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. One tiger felt a smaller cat had a juicier steak than he, and made a snarl so huge and powerful that — despite the stainless-steel bars, a ten-foot buffer, and a high wrought-iron fence — I leapt back in reflexive fear. They say tigers don’t roar but, whatever this was, it electrified me down to my toes.
Despite pangolin-like poaching, global tiger populations have been rising a bit the past few years, for the first time in more than a century. That’s good news but there is a long way to go. I now live in Asia where tigers are not just found in zoos, but actually roam around loose. Or used to.
In Vietnam, where I live, a 2016 World Wildlife Fund survey counted five in the wild — functionally extinct. Laos and Cambodia? Extinct. Burma has a few and some reside in Thailand.
Why this decimation?
“In China, tigers are considered symbols of courage, bravery, and strength,” according to (appropriately) the Daily Beast. “Traditional Chinese doctors prescribe tiger bones, eyeballs, and other parts to treat a variety of ailments ranging from poor eyesight to impotence. ‘Tiger Feasts’ are allegedly quite popular amongst corrupt government officials and elite businessmen who believe consuming the big cats improves performance across a wide range of activities from the boardroom to the bedroom.”
In addition some — notably in Tibet —also use tiger parts as part of their costume, according to a Save the Tiger report.
I had my nose rubbed in all this when I learned that a relative in the family I married into here in Vietnam once bought and ate a tiger. Status. Magical properties. Oy!
Tigers once inhabited a range from Turkey to the Sea of Japan, and south to Indonesia. Just 7% of that range remains and global population is down from 100,000 a century ago to less than 4,000 wild tigers now.
My family, of course, contributed directly to this.
Now, tigers have had their innings, too. It’s estimated that around a million people have been killed by tigers since 1500. They make scary neighbors, and it’s easy to see why one might be killed by frightened villagers. But a whole world without wild tigers, because we eat them or use them for trophies?
We may be headed there. The vision has moved beyond the wild and into herding tigers as others do cattle. There are, writes Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post, more than 200 tiger farms across Southeast Asia. With typical Asian pragmatism, they know using this method they can get the same value from the animals with far less danger and work.
“Nowhere else,” says McCoy, “is the animal’s commodification more complete than in tiger farming, where it is raised, butchered for parts and sold for tens of thousands of dollars.”
So what can we do?How do we ensure there are scaly pangolins and magnificent felines in our world for years to come?
The Save the Tiger Fund points to two solutions. The first, guarded preserves, is not working: tigers are being killed even in protected reserves. (Deforestation for palm oil or croplands ain’t helping either.)
The second is more nuanced: creating tiger corridors called Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCL) where tigers can remain close to humans but have the means to expand their range as young tigers mature, without having any one area become overpopulated.
There are several TCLs in operation, notably in India and the Himalayan regions “in the midst of some of the densest human populations in South Asia,” where tigers have traditionally lived cheek-by-jowl with humans.
This method links fragmented tiger ranges together through conserved corridors, so breeding pairs’ offspring can move to open ranges through preserved forest channels.
“The corridors are built to promote migration and/or dispersion of certain tiger populations giving them the ability to unite with other tigers,” and increase a depleted gene pool to support, “more diversity, higher birth rates, and higher cub survival.” This method increased the population in Northern India from around 1,400 in 2006 to 2,226 in the census of 2015, an excellent result.
However, success assumes a paradigm in which such corridors also “support and enhance local economies and livelihoods and so are in their self-interest.” (Emphasis is mine)
To those whose families and flocks are eaten by tigers, or who need pangolin meat for food, it’s difficult not to empathize, I get it. But as long as there is a rich pan-Asian class to want tigers for the wrong reasons, and a poor pan-Asian class to poach or farm them, this stuff will continue.
It’s clear that, until we educate people like my relative, lure them out of the cultural matrix in which disappearing species are either driven to extinction or exist only in menageries and tiger-meat farms, we will continue to lose ground.
Indians have a long tradition of vegetarianism and of holding certain animals sacred, and the TCL model seems to be going well there. It remains to be seen whether TCL will work in the rest of Asia. We’re going to have to find a way to make self-interest in preserving wildlife stronger than the urge to kill it.
Having heard one roar up close, I have no desire to confront a tiger in the wild. Nor — in Vietnam at least — am I likely to. But somehow I need to know they’re out there, in their huge ranges, vanishing in the tall forest undergrowth in spite of their flashy coats, feasting once again on an abundance of pangolin, terrifying villagers, and keeping the world from a loss deeper and more lasting than we’ve known.
(1) A TCL has evidence of one or more tigers over the last 10 years
(2) A TCL can consist of several adjacent blocks of habitat among which tigers can disperse, up to a distance of 4 km
(3) A TCL need not be restricted to nor contain protected areas, but instead includes the entire landscape over which tigers may disperse and become established
(4) A TCL must meet a minimum core area requirement for its largest block of habitat that is specific to the habitat-type in which it is found
(5) TCL boundaries are defined either where habitat ends with no suitable habitat within 4 km for the tiger to disperse to, or at country or ecoregion boundaries. [Source: DataBasin.org]