INTRODUCTION TO TIGER CONSERVATION AND THE CONTRIBUTION OF CAPTIVE TIGERS
The goal of wildlife conservation is not to ensure that pretty animals will have a place to live; it is to ensure that we humans will have a place to live. What is at stake is not the survival of this or that animal species but the survival of the human race.
Former host ofMutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom
The tiger, Panthera tigris, is a remarkable species that has evolved to become one of the most efficient and impressive carnivores. It is the largest cat and is therefore a very important top predator in its ecological communities. There has always been a sense of awe in response to the tiger. Part of this has come from the danger and threat that tigers can pose to people and livestock. As a result of this danger, tigers have for a long time been treated as a threat, and therefore killed to protect both the public and animals. In addition, their skin and other body parts were sold for high prices leading to poaching; this practice unfortunately illegally continues in some countries. Tigers mainly feed on deer, wild boar, and other ungulates and require a large prey base. Its prey species have been reduced in many areas as a result of poaching, over-harvesting, habitat conversion to agriculture, and destruction of habitat for development. To complicate matters, the reduction in natural prey along with habitat fragmentation, increases in livestock, and encroachment of human settlements into wild areas escalates conflict as it increases frequency of livestock depredation and human attacks. All these factors have contributed to the tiger’s rapid reduction in range since the 19th century. These complex problems in large carnivore conservation are a common challenge throughout the World. Similar pressures have also caused declines of jaguars in North America, lions in Africa and Asia, wolves in Europe and the US, and most other large carnivores.
Today, the range of the tiger is a fragment of its former wide distribution. Tigers have historically occurred from southeastern Turkey to the Pacific coast of Asia, from the tropical jungles of Java and Bali to the frozen taiga of Siberia. They are solitary as most wild species of cats. Tigers are part of the big cat genus Panthera that includes snow leopards, lions, leopards, and jaguars, of these species they are most closely related to the snow leopard. Among these big cats, tigers and leopards are the most ecologically diverse with broad habitat use and historically wide distribution. This contributes to a large amount of morphological variation and genetic diversity within the tiger species.
Tiger conservation is largely tied to development in Asia. This region of the World is rapidly modernizing, developing, and has among the highest human population growth rates. Further, many countries in this region have very limited resources for conservation and problems with poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Parts of Asia have some of the highest rates of extinction and loss of biodiversity. The remaining native habitat is often fragmented and is constantly under threat of conversion. The fragmentation within ecosystems leads to isolation of populations, this further increases extinction risks. It has been shown in many research studies that isolated populations are more vulnerable than those linked to other populations. This is for two reasons that work together. The first is demographic; when populations are isolated, the animals that die in one area are no longer replaced by new individuals that migrate from elsewhere. The second is genetic; small isolated populations lose diversity through genetic drift and inbreeding, which in turn reduces fitness and increases susceptibility to diseases. Tigers require relatively large tracts of habitat with a stable prey base. In many regions of Asia, it will not be possible to secure the necessary habitat and therefore tigers will continue to decline and disappear from additional areas. There are several important ways we can prevent the extinction of tigers and ensure their perpetual survival; these include community-based conservation programs, research on tigers that generates information for making conservation decisions, government policies that protect and manage tiger populations, and science-based management of captive tigers.
Captive Tiger Populations
One of the very positive things tigers have going for them is that there is a large tiger population in captivity. The reason for this is two-fold. First, tigers are very fascinating and impressive species and so people enjoy seeing them. Therefore, they are among the most popular species to be visited in zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, private facilities, exhibits, and animal shows. Second, they readily breed in captivity and therefore are able to propagate well in the captive environment. The captive tiger population in the United States is around several thousand, majority of which are in private facilities and sanctuaries not within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This has several benefits for the future outlook of the species. The first is that the tiger will not become extinct as long as captive facilities manage the population based on sound science. Second, genetic diversity that was present in this species can be maintained with good breeding practices. Third, the tigers in captivity can be used to raise funds and awareness for conservation in Asia to protect and conserve wild populations. Finally, in areas where this species is extirpated there is the future possibility of reintroducing tigers from captive populations.
Conservation Value of Captive Populations
The value of captive populations should never be underestimated and lessons should be learned from specie such as the thylacine, a marsupial carnivore sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger. In the turn of the 20th century, the Tasmanian tiger disappeared from Australia and only few remained in Tasmania. Some of these Tasmanian tigers were taken into captivity and maintained in zoos in the United States and Australia. Unfortunately, all of these died shortly thereafter. Imagine if the scenario was a little different, imagine if instead of taking just a few into captivity they had foresight to bring in more? A breeding population could then have been established, and with careful management, this species would still be on our planet. There would even have been an opportunity to reintroduce these animals into their native land. This tragically contrasts with the story of the Przewalski’s horse. This species was extirpated from the wild and was only present in captivity during the early part of the 20th century. A group of very dedicated conservationists worked together to reintroduce the Przewalski’s horse into wilds of Mongolia using the captive individuals. Currently, there are several healthy wild herds of Przewalski’s horses in their native habitat. These remarkable efforts successfully averted the extinction of the only remaining wild horse species. As our World continues to develop, we will undoubtedly bear witness to further extinctions; a healthy genetically diverse captive population provides additional insurance against this tragic outcome. The tiger captive population is therefore critical to maintain in order to ensure the continued survival of this big cat.
Why are there such strident measures to inhibit private zoos from displaying the animals they want to display? One reason is finances. A small group of people within the zoo world decide which animals ought to be preserved. This puts pressure on private facilities to close—a big mistake.
Founder of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance Former host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom