Of all the Earth’s creatures that play vital symbolic roles in world cultures, surely the tiger stirs the human imagination as much as any.  In its native Asian lands its likeness appears on currency and coats of arms, and is scratched or carved into remote jungle shrines.  The Hindu goddess Durga rides a tiger into battle to vanquish evil.  In Indonesia the tiger protects the Tree of Life, and in Tibet it holds the keys to immortality.

Even in the West, where the tiger is known only by reputation or in impotent captivity, its image is no less redoubtable.  For Blake, it represents the genius and might of the Creator, an ingenuity so vast and so staggering as to encompass both tiger and lamb.  Repeated references to the “daring” required to fashion this formidable creature seem almost to suggest a creation that can challenge its maker.  For Martel’s narrator, it takes the fearsomeness of Richard Parker, the stowaway tiger in the lifeboat, to elicit the matching life force that will enable his own survival.

Yet, despite this powerful human response to the idea of the tiger, the actual tiger is one of the most endangered animals in the world.  Once numbering over 100,000, its numbers have dropped to fewer than 3000 in the wild.  There are in fact more privately-owned tigers in the state of Texas than remain in the wild globally.

While tiger habitat once stretched from Turkey to Indonesia, 93% of it has been lost in the past century, 40% just in the last decade.1  Eleven nations that formerly hosted tigers no longer do so.  In China, where tigers loom especially large in the culture and iconography, fewer than 50 remain in the wild; while in Korea, whose national creation myth prominently features the tiger, the species is long gone from the South and may be extinct in the North as well.  The Sundarbans, the mangrove forest along the coast of eastern India and Bangladesh that hosts a population of some 300-400 Bengal tigers, is one of the regions most threatened by climate change and sea level rise.  It is estimated that 96% of this unique ecosystem may be gone within half a century, along with its population of swimming, seafood-eating, saltwater-drinking tigers.2

The shrinkage of tiger habitat has also fragmented it.  Like most large predators, tigers can’t survive in small, isolated islands of habitat.  They require larger continuous areas in which to find adequate prey and maintain genetic diversity; otherwise a drought year, a genetic defect, or a single invasive organism could wipe out an entire population (see the D. H. Lawrence page).

Of the original nine tiger subspecies, we have already lost three.  The Bali tiger was first to go, the last one killed by hunters in 1937. It was followed by the Caspian tiger, the only tiger ever to inhabit arid lands; and the Javan tiger. Without adequate protections put in place quickly, the remaining subspecies could all be gone in our lifetime.

The threats essentially fall into two categories: habitat loss and poaching.  Habitat is lost mainly to logging (much of it illegal) and the expansion of agriculture (much of it to monoculture plantations for exports such as palm oil).  As foothill forests are cleared for one or the other, tigers move up into higher elevations where, unlike the more flexible leopard, they may not be able to adapt.  Tiger prey species are often overhunted as well; and the easy availability of livestock often causes tigers to turn to that source of prey instead, leading to retaliatory killing by farmers. 

Poaching results from the high value placed on tiger pelts and on certain body parts, especially bones, for medicinal purposes.  Even where anti-poaching laws exist, they are poorly enforced, due to lack of resources and enforcement capability.

But there is hope for the tiger.  Recent research showing the extent of the species’ decline has galvanized efforts, locally and internationally, to establish the policies and protections essential to its recovery.  A plan is being developed, among the 13 remaining tiger-hosting nations, to try to double the number by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.  A number of tiger sanctuaries have been proposed, many of which straddle international borders, making increased cooperation among nations essential to a successful outcome.  India and Nepal have stepped up by framing an agreement to conserve biodiversity and increase ecological security in their trans-boundary region.3

A number of international organizations are working on the problem, such as Panthera, which works to protect habitat and connecting corridors for all the world’s big cats.  Their Tigers Forever Project, among other goals, works to monitor tiger and prey populations and train park guards to enforce the law.

In eastern Siberia, home to some 400 Amur or Siberian tigers, the Russian government has recently established new regulations to protect Korean pine, a heavily-logged species whose nuts are essential to the tiger’s prey in that region.4  This is expected to help thwart the growing threat to what was until recently a relatively stable tiger population.

In the end, the tigers’ best hope may be their own fecundity.  Given the rapidity with which they breed, sufficient habitat and prey availability together with protection from poaching could enable a strong recovery.  In one reserve in southern India, for instance, despite an annual loss of 23% due to death or migration out of the reserve, the tiger population is actually increasing due to the high birth rate supported by the protection of prey from hunting.5

According to Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund, “We know how to conserve tigers. If we stop the poaching of tigers and their prey and protect their habitat, they come roaring back.”6

1 Handwerk, Brian. “Tiger habitat plummeted 40 percent in 10 years, survey finds.” National Geographic News, July 20, 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/07/060720-tigers.html

2 World Wildlife Fund. “New study shows Bengal tiger’s habitat in danger.” Jan 19, 2010. http://www.worldwildlife.org/who/media/press/2010/WWFPresitem14914.html

 3 NepalNews.com. “Nepal and India join hands for biodiversity conservation on world tiger day.” July 29, 2010. http://www.nepalnews.com/main/index.php/news-archive/19-general/7937-nepal-and-india-join-hands-for-biodiversity-
conservation-on-world-tiger-day.html

4 Poston, Lee. “Russian tiger habitat gets a boost with protection of key tree species.” World Wildlife Fund, July 30, 2010. http://www.worldwildlife.org/who/media/press/2010/WWFPresitem17536.html

5 Smithsonian.com. “Holding ground.” Smithsonian magazine, March 2007. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/wild_things_march07.html#ixzz0zRbq6XTF

6 Handwerk. Op. cit..