The Desire for Tigers: Is It Enough?

Candice Gaukel Andrews December 13, 2011 15

A tiger peers at a camera trap it triggered while hunting in the early morning in the forests of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

“We have the means to save the mightiest cat on Earth, but do we have the will?” asks writer Caroline Alexander in an article titled “A Cry for the Tiger” in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The question certainly gives us pause. The United Nations declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity; and because it was also the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the World Wildlife Fund placed the animal at the top of its list of “10 critically important endangered animals that we believe will need special monitoring over the next 12 months.” And in November 2010, the 13 “tiger countries” attended the St. Petersburg Global Tiger Summit in Russia and pledged to double the number of wild tigers by 2022.

Yet, 2010 came and went with no detectable improvements in wild tiger numbers. In fact, in March 2010, a mother and two cubs were poisoned in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand. In the same month, it appears that villagers who had lost goats to tiger attacks poisoned two young tigers in Ranthambore National Park in India. And today there are still more big cats in captivity than there are in the wild.

So, do we truly have enough “tiger desire” to save the wild cats from extinction?

A poacher’s snare cost this six-month-old cub its right front leg—and its freedom. The limb was amputated after the tiger had been enmeshed for three days in a snare in Aceh Province, Indonesia. Unable to hunt, the tiger now lives in a zoo on Java. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

Good intentions haven’t paid off

India is home to approximately 50 percent of the world’s wild tigers, estimated to number somewhere around 4,000. But just 100 years ago, as many as a thousand tigers may have roamed Asia. Habitat loss and poaching (both of tigers and their prey) have been blamed for the decimation. And it seems that no matter how many “save-the-tiger” organizations we have (Save the Tiger Fund, Global Tiger Patrol, Sierra Club Volunteers Saving Wild Tigers, World Wildlife Fund’s Save Tigers Now and National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, among others), we can’t seem to stem the loss.

In the National Geographic article, Caroline Alexander writes:

“The tiger’s enemies are well-known: loss of habitat exacerbated by exploding human populations, poverty—which induces poaching of prey animals—and looming over all, the dark threat of the brutal Chinese black market for tiger parts. Less acknowledged are botched conservation strategies that for decades have failed the tiger. The tiger population, dispersed among Asia’s 13 tiger countries, is estimated at fewer than 4,000 animals, though many conservationists believe there are hundreds less than that. To put this number in perspective: global alarm for the species was first sounded in 1969, and early in the ‘80s it was estimated that some 8,000 tigers remained in the wild. So decades of vociferously expressed concern for tigers—not to mention millions of dollars donated by well-meaning individuals—has achieved the demise of perhaps half of the already imperiled population.”

A mother rests with her two-month-old in Bandhavgarh National Park, where—contrary to the global trend—managers have built up tiger numbers. Compensation for loss of life caused by cats outside the park gives villagers some consolation. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

Boots-on-the-ground conservation

Nearly a third of India’s tigers live outside of tiger reserves, which makes wildlife corridors essential to their long-term survival. Prey and tigers can only disperse if there are corridors of wild land between protected areas to allow their unmolested passage. Tigers may range over a hundred miles, seeking mates, territory and prey.

The encouraging news is that according to Dr. Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist and vice president of conservation science for the World Wildlife Fund, there are about 390,000 square miles of tiger habitat remaining. Assuming two tigers for every 39 square miles, that’s a potential for 20,000 tigers.

But to grow such numbers, long-term conservation must focus on all aspects of creating a tiger-friendly landscape again: developing wildlife corridors, keeping sanctuaries inviolate, and instilling and keeping alive respect for tigers in surrounding human communities. To do that, according to Caroline Alexander, there must be a relentless, systematic, boots-on-the-ground patrolling and monitoring of both tiger and prey in those places that still harbor realistically defensible, core tiger populations. Under such a practice, it’s believed, a population consisting of only half a dozen breeding females can rebound.

And the best news of all may be that those boot soles are being put to soil in the largest reserve on Earth devoted to protecting tigers: the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar.

Let’s hope those boots keep on walkin’.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. v colantonio September 9, 2013 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    We have traveled far and wide largely due to NGM’s excellent photojournalism. “Cry for the Tiger” finally exposes the dark side of NGM’s drive to capture publishable photos; they “barged ruthlessly to the head of the queue.” NGM’s photographers and guides are nothing more than thugs roaming the Masai Mara, Serengeti, Galapagos, Denali, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and dozens more sites looking for a money shot at the expense of everyone else. NGM claims to aspire “to inspire people to care about the planet,” and if they do, their logo should not be on the people who ruin the experience for the rest of us.

  2. Travis March 13, 2012 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    I read that a leopard was loose in eastern India last January and killed one man and scalped another. That doesn’t seem to do much to alleviate fears of large cats there.

  3. Dr Nimisha Tripathi December 19, 2011 at 3:47 am - Reply

    Education and training to the local dwellers around the forest area is must to enhance the niche and habitat of the tiger for sustainable management of this beautiful creature of Nature.

  4. Kate December 18, 2011 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more, Aline. I dedicated my first novel, Tiger Country to those concerned with saving the tiger. It was set mainly in Sri Lanka (no tigers) but dealt with the trade in tiger parts for the China. It’s the same with Africa and ivory, where I’ve watched the enormous rise in Chinese influence with trepidation. But how can we change the mindset of over a billion people? It’s the demand from there that’s the problem. Stopping the poaching will never really work until the demand stops. Ideas anyone?

  5. Thomas N. December 18, 2011 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    Declining wildlife and biodiversity cannot be saved by remote conservation groups and their money, no matter how well-meaning. Unless the local human populations that share these habitats and their local governments recognize the value of these natural, systems and their ecological functions, the drive for improved living circumstances and economic standards based on western ideals will always trump the sacrifices necessary to preserve and conserve wild ecosystems.

  6. Jacqueline December 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    I agree with Fraser. One day it will be too late and this beautiful creature will only be seen in cramped zoo spaces and abused in circuses. Makes me very sad.

  7. John W. December 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    As their numbers decline, the efforts to save the tigers increase. It could happen but tigers are high profile members of the eco-system, but more and more parts of the functioning system are being knocked out. Eventually the whole system could collapse and take the species that walks on two legs, uses tools and communicates using speech with it, not just tigers.

    Desire is not enough. You say, “Let’s hope those boots keep on walkin’ “. Hope is good, but I think we can do better than that.

  8. Ravi Upadhyay December 14, 2011 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I agree with you we need a strong will and commitment to save this endangered species.

  9. Helen December 14, 2011 at 6:19 am - Reply

    Great article!

  10. Aline December 14, 2011 at 6:15 am - Reply

    Those of us who care passionately and work at it are committed but the general public perhaps just does not understand the crisis of numbers and of course the Chinese by and large are uncaring. On facebook you will find committed people in the charity Tiger Awareness, Tiger Time Tigers4ever etc, plus 21st century Tiger. I have written of it in all three conventional books and even managed to bring it into the e-book on India. there were 40,000 tigers in India when I was little there, but there were 400,000,000 people. Now there are about 1,200 tigers and 1.2 billion people…speaks for itself let alone greed, corruption, poaching. Yesterday we heard of the cruel treatment of caged tigers on tiger farms in China which were left to starve to death….this world, and all our western governments are paying court to those people because we have allowed greed to mess up our financial world.

  11. Bonnie December 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    Overpopulation of humans reduces the wide open habitat areas for wildlife and predator wildlife too near humans results in reduction of the predators for human safety. It’s really a mess. I just picked up the current issue of Nat Geo yesterday.

  12. Art Hardy December 13, 2011 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    The countries that care about tiger preservation need to continue putting pressure on habitat countries. They probably also need to keep captive populations strong and just wait out these countries until they realize how valuable tigers in the wild are as tourist magnets.

  13. Fraser December 13, 2011 at 10:42 am - Reply

    No we most certainly do NOT have the will in answer to the question. If we did, we wouldn’t see them killed on a weekly basis, persistent infighting & corruption allied to continual habitat encroachment & destruction. Much of the census methods are dubious to say the least, without radical change I don’t see any future for them.

  14. Ravi Shanker December 13, 2011 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Conservation of tiger requires strong political determination in India. Tiger project and provision of Wildlife Protection Act 1972 is half-heatedly implemented.

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