Saving tigers, you get more for your health, livelihood and money!

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June 30, 2019 by Species Ecology

Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

Saving tigers, you get more for your health, livelihood and money!

Mohammed Ashraf

Wild tigers (Panthera tigris) are breathtaking, charismatic and elusive mega vertebrate that now facing anthropogenic assaults across South and South East Asia. This secretive and graceful species once roam all over Asia from Mediterranean ecosystem by the Caspian sea in the west to relatively high latitude far east nations like Korea and Japan. Sadly, three subspecies have gone extinct from the wild over the past hundred years and current extant subspecies number is rounded to five. More so, there were over hundred thousands tiger freely roamed across this vast Asian ecological landscape as early as 1900, but sadly 95% of the tiger habitats is disappeared by the

Historic and Current Range (Green) of Tigers. GIS Data Source : World Wildlife Fund, Washington D.C. USA

turn of the 20th century. The remaining five subspecies of tigers now live in a complex human induced fragmented ecosystems across South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. Tigers are in grave threat and in serous trouble. There are less than 4000 tigers left in the wild and their numbers are declining astronomically purely due to human persecution in various forms for example, habitat encroachment, prey depletion and hunting, agricultural expansion to name few. In spite of the fact tigers provoke sense of pure awe and excitement for millions of people across the world, it is ironic that their population size is pushed to near extinction. The importance of preserving tigers in the wild not just for the sake of doubling tiger population size but more importantly how conserving tiger habitats across tiger range nations can significantly benefits humans and nations’ economy are at the heart of devising in-situ conservation initiatives and public outreach campaign across the hemisphere.

Wild Tiger

96% of the tiger population has gone extinct from the wild over the last century and current estimates indicate there are 3900 wild tigers left across 13 tiger range nations. Recognizing the fact that tigers are in deep trouble and about to go extinct, if concerted efforts to reverse the trend of population decline were not in force, governments of 13 tiger states gathered in St. Petersburg in Russia in year 2010. The most ambitious and challenging project called Tx2 which simply refers to doubling the tiger population size (Tiger times 2 or Tx2) by year 2022 coinciding with the next Chinese year of the tiger, were launched via St. Petersburg Declaration. Governments of these 13 states agreed to the declaration and made commitments to increase tiger population in their respective nations. Nine years have gone past since Tx2 was initiated and the current status and demographic vital signs of tigers across tiger range countries are still long way from secured footing. The negative trend of population decline continues and local population is either gone extinct or become too small to maintain demographically viable breeding population. Habitat destruction coupled with rampant poaching for tiger body parts and skin continue unchecked despite endangered species act and international ban on trade for endangered species under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The goal to achieve Tx2 hence doubling the tiger numbers from 3900 to 7800 by year 2022 is still not out of our hand but time is ticking. Doubling the tiger number is a collective goal and not directly translates to doubling the tiger number for each individual state . For example, countries like Nepal and Bhutan where Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) subspecies roam, concerted and dedicated efforts since St. Petersburg declaration in 2010 have been made and tiger population has in fact increased in these nations. India for example harbors over half of the tiger population (over 2000 tigers in India) and Indian government and dedicated wildlife scientists are working hard to stabilize tiger population and restore degraded tiger habitats. Therefore, progress has been made but not all up to the speed and expectation. Countries like Malaysia where subspecies Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) roam, are in grave threat due to large scale agricultural and industrial expansion to boost short term economic benefits. Same applies to Thailand where Indo-Chinese subspecies (Panthera tigris corbetti) are in great danger. Situation on tiger population status is more severe and dire in countries like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar (formerly Burma) where population size of tigers is so low that it is functionally extinct. Indonesian islands of Bali and Java already lost tiger subspecies over the last 50 years or so and only subspecies that is Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) now roams in the tropical forest ecosystem of Indonesian island called Sumatra. Their numbers are also declining fast due to habitat transformation for mono cultural cash crop notably oil palm, teak, rubber and coffee plantations. Bangladesh boasts the largest mangrove ecosystem called Sundarbans in the world. It is also the only mangrove wetland that harbors tiger population. Despite the vast size of mangrove delta and potentially the largest single-tract contiguous tiger ecosystem in South Asia, it is a paradox that there are less than 200 tigers left in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans. Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) population in Russian far east are facing similar anthropogenic disturbances but population seem to be stabilize : thanks to dedicated conservation initiatives and actions that are on place.

Image Courtesy: World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – 2017 Report -Beyond the stripes : save tiger, save so much more!

Tigers are an umbrella species meaning saving tigers benefits suits of heterogeneous ecosystems that host exceptionally high biodiversity. Biological diversity aka biodiversity comprises genes, species, population, community, ecosystem, landscape and biosphere which in fact is our planet. Each of this element of biodiversity poses significant benefits to humans. Everything as a human we require comes from ecosystems be it fresh air, clean water, nutrients, medicine to name few. Ecosystem is made up of plants and animals comprising genes, species, population and community. Large landscape hosts several ecosystems and hosts multitude ecological and biological diversity across the tiger landscape. These ecosystems are the heartbeat of human survival. Tigers in South and South East Asia live in these large ecological landscapes comprising tropical and semi tropical forests and tall grasslands, rainforests and mangrove swamps. These are exceptionally rich landscapes due to high diversity of flora (plants) and fauna (animals). The earth’s most richest places in terms of animals and plants are in fact fall into tiger landscapes and these are ecologically termed as Biodiversity Hotspot. Out of 13 tiger range countries, 12 of these nations harbor four biodiversity hotspots where tigers roam. There are 332 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) that were identified within tiger landscapes. KBAs are ecosystems with high floral, faunal and ecological diversity and significantly contribute towards global biodiversity persistence in tropical belt. 30% of the tiger landscapes also fall under UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization) declared World Heritage Site. These are exceptionally outstanding ecosystem but these ecosystems are unique both in terms of their biodiversity and socio-cultural potential incorporating indigenous community and their ecological wisdom. Preserving tigers that lives in large tiger landscapes in South and South East Asia encompassing Biodiversity Hotspot, KBAs and World Heritage Site not only benefits tigers, but it significantly benefits humans that are intricately connected and depends on these ecosystems for livelihood and survival. For example nine globally important watersheds fall under tiger landscapes in South Asia. These watershed provide clean water to as many as 830 million people. Forests where tiger lives store more carbons than any other forests in Asia hence contributing to mitigate global climate change. 100% of the Orangutan’s and Rhino’s habitats overlaps with tiger landscape in Sumatra therefore preserving tigers simply bring benefits and protection for these endangered vertebrates. Tigers are truly a landscape species and keystone mega vertebrate that brings enormous benefits and opportunity for humans and large number of other species.

Bengal Tigers

Conserving tigers that are now living in dwindling population in large fragmented heterogeneous biodiversity hotspots in Indo Malayan ecoregion translates to astronomical benefits to large suits of biologically diverse species, humans and economy. Between 1997 – 2011 ecosystem loss counted to $20.2 trillion dollars. Investing in tiger conservation in tiger landscapes prevent ecosystem loss because when you conserve tigers, you not only saving tiger as single species, you are in fact preserving part of earth that poses remarkably high biodiversity and ecosystems that people need for their survival in the long run.

I would stop using the label ‘Project Tiger’ and call it ‘Project Eco-System’. We need to communicate effectively that saving the tiger is not some middle class obsession. It is an ecological imperative — by saving the tiger, you are saving the forests. The tiger is merely the symbol. By saving it, we ensure our water security.”

             Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of State for Environment and Forests, India

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