Tiger Questions

How many tigers are left in the wild? And what about in 5 years’ time? Or when my 6 year-old child has grandchildren? Fundamentally, these questions are unanswerable. Tigers are solitary creatures, disliking disturbance of any kind and moving silently through their forests, often coming close to people without our knowledge. We can gather and assess information about their presence in a given area, and estimate numbers, but these figures will never be a comprehensive assessment of all tiger populations, and may not be comparable from one country to another or even from one year to another.

Estimating tiger numbers is a worthy pursuit, but it can give us a false impression, resulting in a sense of complacency if numbers appear to be increasing. Just as importantly, it can distract us from the more important questions we should be asking.

A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting in India which brought together high-level government officials from tiger range countries, as well as organisations and individuals focussed on saving tigers. A figure which appeared to indicate an increase in the global tiger population had been bandied about to much fanfare in a press release issued just a day before the meeting began. On the morning of the first day, the delegates got busy working their way through the agenda, and at one point I found myself in a room with some eminent scientists and tiger conservationists discussing tiger reintroductions. But there was an elephant in the room and, at one point between presentations, one of those in the audience decided to address it, making the following powerful observation: that it mattered less how many tigers we counted at any given point, and much more how many of them we could actually protect from unchecked development, habitat degradation, conflict with people and of course poaching gangs which feed the demand for parts and products many miles away from where tigers live.

There is nothing inconclusive or vague about the reality of these threats, nor of their impact on tiger populations across Asia. So, if we want a future with tigers, we have to ask ourselves some critically important questions which have a direct bearing on protecting what tigers we have, and securing a future for ourselves which includes these iconic animals.

First of all, how many tigers do we want, and linked to that, how far down the road to achieving that objective are we as a global community?

How can we drastically reduce the threats tigers face, and what are the key practical and proven solutions which can be rolled out in a coordinated way in and around tiger habitat?

What are the main roadblocks which are preventing tiger populations from growing, and how should we overcome or work around them?

Are there enough wild places which are undisturbed, adequately protected and contain all a tiger needs to not only survive but thrive? Has our approach to date worked? Are there other or better ways?

How far are we prepared to go to ensure a world with more tigers? What value are we prepared to place on them? Is everyone, including donors, local communities, and politicians, prepared for the implications of having more tigers?

Is the global community going to rally together and demand an end to captive tiger breeding in East and Southeast Asia (tiger “farming”), which stimulates demand for tiger skin, claws, teeth and tiger bone wine from both captive-bred and wild tigers?

These and more are the questions we need to pose and answer, now and every day in the future – not just when Global Tiger Day rolls around.

Gabriel Fava, Born Free’s Associate Director, Asia and Oceana

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