Tigers: Worth More Dead Than Alive

Elizabeth O’Neill

Like most people, I have never seen a tiger in the wild. Despite being a conservation biologist, the only tigers I regularly encounter at close range are popular icons in Western culture, like Hobbes, Tigger, Sher Khan, and the jolly Tony on my breakfast cereal box. I have admired tigers in zoos, however, so they are somewhatmore real tome than dinosaurs, but much less so than the grey squirrels outside my office window. Nonetheless, it is important to me that tigers roam the world, as it is to many others. In a 2004 poll for the cable network Animal Planet, more than 20 percent of 50,000 viewers representing 73 countries voted the tiger the “world’s favorite animal.”

Maybe, paradoxically, this is why the world holds fewer than 4,000 wild tigers today. Tomost of us, they are thriving—in our minds and imaginations, on TV, and in the pages of magazines like this one—and this enables continued denial and inaction. Meanwhile, the reality of the tiger is that all remaining subpopulations—none of which numbers more than 250 individuals—are in decline and that they now roam across only 7 percent of their original range.

Of the nine tiger subspecies that once thrived, poaching, conflict, and competition with human populations have driven three species to extinction and three others to near extinction within the past 50 years.The South China tiger, vigorously persecuted after a bounty was placed on its head by Chairman Mao himself, is considered to be functionally extinct.