Selling the Unicorn – considering Namibia’s controversial trophy auction

Most of the stories we read concerning the killing of wildlife surround the spectre of poaching, acts that accelerate the relentless march of endangered species towards extinction. We collectively condemn these practices and call for strong action to counter the poaching threat, including the strict censure and punishment of those that commit such crimes. It is difficult for us to conceive, therefore, of any situation in which the killing of wildlife could be described as a means to conserve rather than destroy our threatened wildlife populations.

Black Rhinos
Black Rhinos are highly sought for their horns

The rhino is no exception in this regard. It is one of our most ancient animals, argued by some even to represent the origin of the unicorn myth. The recent decision of the Namibian government to auction three of its  black rhinos for the purpose of trophy hunting places the endangered rhino once more in the spotlight and highlights the need for more cohesive and innovative approaches towards its conservation.

The conservation of the rhinoceros is an expensive endeavour, particularly in the midst of a rampant poaching crisis that claims the lives of over 1,000 of the animals every year, for the removal and use of their horns. Rhino horn is a highly prized ingredients within the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopeia and can sell at over £60,000 per pound on the black market, making them more valuable by weight than either gold or diamonds.

Rhino horn is worth more by weight on the black market than gold or diamonds
Rhino horn is worth more by weight on the black market than gold or diamonds

Despite a distinct lack of scientific credibility, many Asian customers hold strong beliefs as to the ability of rhino horn to cure a variety of ailments, including fevers, rheumatism and gout. In recent years, its use has also been viewed as a way to demonstrate the wealth and success of its rich consumers and even more highly sought as a consequence of the prestige this is seen to convey. In reality, the horns are constructed from little more than the protein keratin and have remarkably similar properties to human hair and fingernails. Regardless of the validity of medicinal claims, however, the reality is that the rhino horn is a highly sought after product and thus a lucrative business opportunity for organised crime networks. Due to the incredibly high returns available from even a single rhino horn sale, these criminal gangs can afford to employ highly sophisticated weaponry and up to date surveillance equipment and, in terms of firepower can seriously outgun the authorities that seek to protect their dwindling populations of wild rhinos. As a consequence, wildlife authorities across Africa are seeking new ways to attract the amount of investment required to challenge this poaching menace and to prevent the extinction of these magnificent creatures.

If we were to travel back in time to beginning of the twentieth century, it was estimated that over half a million rhinos roamed wild across the African and Asian continents. By 1993, this number had declined by around 93% to leave the global population at a perilous low of just 2,300 individuals. Although the intervening years have seen a rebound in rhino numbers to an estimated 5,000, if the current resurgence in poaching continues at similar levels as those witnessed today, the species will once again slip towards the precipice of extinction. The black rhino numbers only 5,000 or so individuals, the largest population of which can be found in the south-western African country of Namibia. rhino poaching infographicHere, poaching levels have increased rapidly in recent years and the wildlife authorities have encountered major difficulties in generating sufficient revenue to fund the required anti-poaching measures. The traditional safari economy may provide some of the income needed, but nowhere near enough for the effective and expensive rhino protection that is required. It is for this reason that the Namibian authorities have agreed to the auction of three of its rhinos ,an exercise that could ultimately generate in excess of US$1 million (around £700,000). It is also likely to generate considerable controversy.

This is not the first time that Namibia has embarked upon such a venture, with a single rhino in May 2015 realising US$350,000, courtesy of a wealthy American hunter named Corey Knowlton. Even more recently, in Zimbabwe, the well chronicled shooting of Cecil the lion hit the global headlines and made the shooter, US dentist Walter Palmer into public enemy number one across a vast swathe of social media.

Cecil the lion
Perceptions towards trophy hunting changed rapidly following the killing of Cecil the lion in 2015

The killing of endangered animals is an emotive and highly polarised issue, one that divides opinion as it pits economic justifications against ethical concerns. The economic rationale behind the latest auction is a simple one; that the lethal removal of elderly rhinos that play no role in the replenishment of the genetic stock and, moreover, may constitute a danger to younger animals, enables wildlife authorities to better protect the species as a whole. A very rational, utilitarian argument. The opposition, however, is more nuanced and multifaceted in its response, arguing that any state sanctioned killing is wrong and that the lives of all individuals within a species should be sacrosanct.

This presents the conservation lobby with an obvious dilemma. How to balance the financial efficacy of trophy hunting with the concomitant reputation-damaging effects of any tacit support they may lend to the hunting lobby itself. On the one hand, a large cash injection is welcome in the short term, on the other, if this should compromise the ongoing patronage of regular donors then it may prove to be more counterproductive over the longer term. To discuss this further, it is necessary to consider the fall-out from previous trophy hunting episodes mentioned previously. In each case, following an initial outpouring of emotional compassion towards the animals themselves, the theme of the reaction soon reverted to what was viewed to be a redundancy of compassion (or indeed, moral turpitude) displayed by the hunters, manifesting itself strongly in their vilification on social media.

cartoon of animal tropies
A satirical cartoon by Dan Piraro playing on the egocentric nature of the trophy hunter

This included the issuance of death treats levelled against those perceived to be the ‘murderers’. This language provides us with a clue. The act of murder, in a legal sense, can only be committed by a human against another human. In an ethical sense, however, what the anti-hunting lobby perceive to be the repugnancy of the act of shooting an animal can soon be translated into a call for animal rights and an accompanying need to punish the perpetrators of such an act. In short, protest against the act itself tends to be followed by a more prolonged revenge against the actors involved, a process that can rapidly degenerate into one that is particularly vindictive and threatening.

For example, in the wake of the Cecil the lion affair, former newspaper editor turned TV personality, Piers Morgan posted the following on his twitter feed (perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek) ‘I’d love to go hunting for killer dentist Dr. Walter Palmer, so I can stuff and mount him for my office wall’. Within days this tweet was shared 26,000 times and, across social media outlets the language employed against the hunter became increasingly more aggressive and vitriolic. The plight of the lion, although far from forgotten, soon became a secondary theme of the postings. Such examples highlight the increasing power and reach of social media and hint at the extent to which it is rapidly usurping the conventional media in framing discourse on such controversial issues. The hunting lobby responded with the claim that they were also conservationists and that their investment did more to protect wildlife than the reams of spurious charges levelled against them suggested. What emerged was an impasse, a debate that had become so polarised that it precluded any opportunity for dialogue between the disputing factions, leaving many conservation interests eager to sit back silently and wait for the storm to pass. This reactionary approach, whatever the rights or wrongs of the rival positions, does little to change the conservation landscape and, as the latest Namibian auction unfolds and the hunters travel to claim their trophies, so a new storm will evolve and this is likely to follow a similar pattern to the controversies that have gone before. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this response is the fact that it detracts from the pursuit of alternative means by which to raise the much needed funds to protect rhinos, as the disparate positions become ever more difficult to reconcile.

Lisa Newton, in her 2005 book ‘Business Ethics and the Natural Environment’ lamented the irony of this position, arguing that such deeply entrenched antipathy has resulted in “the polarisation of the people best qualified to solve environmental problems”. In the case of the rhino and the trophy hunter, the passion displayed on both sides of the divide have ensured that the debate remains static, mired in acrimony, at the expense of constructive dialogue to seek solutions to what is far from a single issue problem. In order to remedy this, the rhino crisis needs to be viewed as a ‘wicked’ problem, its complexity exceeding the mere consideration of the rights and wrongs of any single dispute or act. We live during a period in which wildlife is becoming seen increasingly as a commodity and, in order to justify its continuance in the wild, it needs to pay its way. If conventional tourism receipts prove insufficient to achieve this goal it is perhaps inevitable that more market-based solutions will emerge to fill the void. While trophy hunting may continue to be one of the ‘quick fix’ income generating mechanisms employed by wildlife authorities to tackle escalating wildlife crime, it is vital that the debate moves beyond this and identifies new ways to ensure that the rhino is worth more alive than it is dead. This may occur through the increasing support of industry, maybe through a growing emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives, although once more these forms of partnership remain difficult to enact due to a persistent distrust of business on the part of many conservation traditionalists. Perhaps a more palatable response may arise through the emergent field of crowd funding and the potential for wildlife investment that this may offer to offset the opportunity costs associated with the increasingly unpopular trophy hunting industry.

Whatever may happen in the longer term, it is likely that the immediate future will continue to be dominated by controversy, the decision of the Namibian government forcing us to face some uncomfortable truths. It is imperative, however, that we emerge from this impasse with a clearer roadmap as to how we can best tackle the poaching menace; ways that are more acceptable to all the actors engaged in the arduous task of rhino protection.

Dürer's famous 1515 wood cut of the animal that some believe to be the origin of the unicorn myth.
Dürer’s famous 1515 wood cut of the animal that some believe to be the origin of the unicorn myth.

Unless we find ways to better protect these most ancient animals, the likelihood that the unicorn will persist only in captive conditions or in the pages of books becomes an increasingly realistic scenario, one that eclipses our reluctance to move beyond the familiar territory of simplistic disputes between economics and ethics.

Under pressure: how many tigers is too many?

A 60's board game - Tiger IslandIt is useful at this juncture to return briefly to the debate surrounding tiger numbers. It is evident that the metric currently being used to assess the success of india’s tiger conservation is based on a continual growth model. It is also clear that this growth is being achieved across a declining base of territory, where habitat loss and fragmentation is creating ‘islands’ in which tiger communities are becoming trapped, unable to disperse into outlying areas of viable habitat.

As tigers are territorial animals, this growth strategy may ultimately create significant problems and, as numbers continue to increase, so territorial disputes are also expected to rise in parallel. This situation is likely to create a higher incidence of injured tigers with the inevitable outcome of enhanced human-tiger conflict at the periphery of over-stocked reserves.

Imagine a pressure cooker with a broken valve. The ingredients have been carefully prepared and placed on the heat. The lid fits snugly and is sealed to prevent loss of energy, which is instead regulated by the valve that enables the steam to escape. Should this valve malfunction then the build up of excess energy has nowhere to go and the ultimate result is likely to involve some form of explosion. To prevent this from happening you have three main options. Firstly you can take no action at all and merely react to the inevitable, placing all in proximity to the cooker in immediate danger. Secondly, and more prudently, you can take the cooker off the heat, sacrificing its contents in favour of safety. Finally, you can change the valve to enable the safe and regulated escape of the excess energy that is building. The final option is obviously the most judicious. Now let us return to the tiger reserves and consider these same options. For the hermetically sealed lid of the pressure cooker let us substitute the reserve boundary, its porosity compromised in order to release the energy more efficiently. As we have seen previously, it is easier to manage tigers in tightly controlled protected areas that are kept separate from people for a number of reasons, not least to reduce the potential for conflict. In this case, the excess energy represents surplus tigers, the valve the dispersal corridors enabling their escape. If these dispersal routes become blocked then our options are similar to those available to us in dealing with our faulty pressure cooker, with the only feasible option being to replace the valve, which in this case entails the re opening of key corridors. In India at present, this option is viewed as the most difficult and rather than invest in improving the sink regions, emphasis has been placed on increasing the coverage of source areas as opposed to connecting them. In other words, more damaged pressure cookers. In recent years, tiger reserves have increased from just eight at the inception of Project Tiger to 48 today, with more in the pipeline. The question, therefore, is how many tigers can India accommodate before reaching its saturation point?

This is a difficult question to answer and one that necessitates a closer consideration of stocking densities. On the surface, there are a few simple calculations that can be undertaken to determine appropriate capacities. First, the availability of sufficient prey is central to the ability of existing reserves to keep pace with growing tiger numbers. Second, the existence of overspill areas to provide space for dispersing tigers is equally crucial. Finally, although not exhaustively, appropriate mechanisms to mitigate human-tiger conflicts will determine the extent to which these available spaces are habitable to growing tiger numbers. This may at first sight suggest that the issue of tiger numbers is relatively simple to reconcile, although in reality it clearly is not. Estimates of stocking densities range depending on the types of habitat comprising the national estate of existing tiger territory and a brief review of the figures acts to obscure rather than reveal any commonality.

Before considering this however, it Is first useful to ascertain what makes a viable and sustainable meta-population of tigers. Current estimates suggest that the figure consists of at least 75-100 tigers, including a minimum of 25 breeding females. This number is believed to be sufficient to offset annual population losses of up to 20 per cent, due to natural mortality and permanent emigration. If this minimum figure is accurate, it is then important to estimate the physical space required to accommodate such a population. Let us return then to our task of calculating the carrying capacity of existing tiger landscapes. As previously intimated, perhaps the most important indicator surrounds the extent of available prey species within habitat blocks. Tigers need abundant sources of food to survive and an adult needs to catch and consume around 50 large-bodied ungulates each year merely to sustain itself. If we consider that only one in ten hunts result in a successful kill, then a ballpark figure of some 500 prey animals need to be present in any individual tiger’s territory. So, for a viable meta-population of 100 tigers, a prey base of at least 50,000 large-hoofed ungulates is a minimum requirement. The relative abundance of prey, therefore, represents a limiting factor to the growth of tiger numbers in delineated reserves. This means that there can be no simple equation to calculate the real carrying capacity across the current network of protected areas, characterised as they are by significant differences in habitat size, type and connectivity.

Barasingha in Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
Barasingha in Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

Take, for example, the frozen, inhospitable landscapes of the Russian far-east, the domain of the Amur tiger, the largest of the world’s subspecies. Here, the expansive territory size reflects the paucity and dispersed nature of the prey base, with a single tiger’s territory covering as much as 500 square kilometres, meaning that tiger numbers will always remain lower in this region than in the more prey dense environments of India where tigers can exist in clusters of 10-20 adults per 100 square kilometres. If we scale this up, it means that an area containing a single tiger’s territory in Russia could hold between 50-100 individuals in parts of India. Small wonder, therefore, that many experts cling to the view that the long-term prospects for the survival of wild tigers are inextricably linked to decisions taken in the forested landscapes of the Indian subcontinent. But, even in India, these densities remain the exception as opposed to the rule. Only a handful of existing reserves contain such viable populations at present and, across much of the country’s protected area estate, densities remain conspicuously lower than the minimum standards prescribed to ensure sustainable populations. Furthermore, while considerable areas of currently unoccupied territory exists across the subcontinent, this is rarely contiguous with the existing reserve system and therefore requires significant human intervention to populate these spaces with big cats. The Tiger Task force, introduced in the wake of the Sariska extinction event, suggested a natural ceiling on tiger numbers in India of up to 3,700 individuals, calculating this on a mid-range density of between 8-10 tigers per 100 square kilometres. This, however, was based upon the current protected area network and, in particular, the inviolate spaces comprising the core, taking no account of future inclusions into the system.

Cover page of the report of the Tiger Task Force
The report of the Tiger Task Force – joining the dots

In the absence of functional corridors, natural dispersal becomes severely compromised, leaving wildlife managers little option than to manually move tigers between areas of existing and new habitat. This method has been labelled ‘assisted colonisation’ and enables excess tigers to be siphoned away from overstocked reserves to populate patches of available habitat elsewhere. This emphasis upon prime habitat has an effect of removing poorer quality, often degraded, sink areas from the management equation, allowing development potential to be realised within and beyond the immediate periphery of the reserves. This provides decision makers with an opportunity to manipulate the extent and spread of tiger populations without them having to deal with the more complex issue of corridor restoration. Critics of this approach emphasise the dangers inherent in a growing lack of connectivity and the resulting loss of ‘wildness’ due to increasingly intensive management interventions. Moreover, they point to the threats posed by overstocking of reserves as a direct consequence of a strategy emphasising the continual growth of tiger populations. 2015 census summary. 2226 tigers in 47 tiger reservesHere, as we have seen, increasing human-tiger conflict and a growing gender imbalance has further amplified calls for enhanced management intervention, the result being an increasing focus of funding towards the core, source areas at the expense of the peripheral sink regions. In short, it is more convenient for managers to restrict the movement of tigers beyond reserve boundaries in favour of a growing concentration strategy. As we have seen, however, this is difficult when dealing with such free-ranging, territorial predators. Recent evidence, however, points to certain adaptive behaviours that may be developing in tiger communities as conditions change.

The Wildlife Institute of India (WWI) has recently launched a research study surrounding the meta-population dynamics of wild tigers and initial reports suggest some interesting departures from conventionally understood social traits attributed to them. There is a suggestion that, in areas where male tiger numbers are increasing, that their territorial behaviour may be shifting. The underlying research, focused on the Terai region of northern India which contains over one-fifth of India’s stock of wild tigers, aims to study connectivity, gene flow and social dynamics within resident tiger populations and their habitats. The lead investigator explained that the Terai region has already been well researched, enabling the current researchers to access existing data surrounding ecological processes. Another WWI researcher, Bivash Pandav, expressed surprise at some of the details emerging from the early stages of the study. He explained that our established understanding of tigers’ social traits focuses primarily on males occupying and defending distinct territories with two or three females overlapping their range. The new findings, however, suggest that established social dynamics may be changing. Researchers are raising the possibility that, as numbers increase, tigers may be becoming more tolerant of territorial incursions and, where these lead to clandestine breeding episodes, the resident male has been recorded to increasingly accept the resulting progeny as his own. Whether this is a result of ignorance or design is difficult to tell at this stage but the matter is undoubtedly worthy of further investigation to help ascertain the effects of higher stocking densities within increasingly isolated reserves.

While this post has concentrated heavily upon the role of prey availability in determine tiger stocking densities, it does need to be pointed out that a range of other factors impact upon the number of tigers extant within India’s network of tiger reserves. In a recent study, Rajesh Gopal, former director of Project Tiger and one of the architects of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) identified the main determinants of tiger density as including not only prey abundance but also related to levels of human disturbance, remoteness of habitat and source population connectivity.

Tiger territories vary greatly depending on location
Tiger territories vary greatly depending on location

The pressure cooker analogy, although far from perfect, is useful to illustrate the perils associated with any containment policy in which dispersal is compromised and tigers are forced to live in greater numbers across a declining base of territory. The inability to release excess pressure naturally leads inevitably to increasing levels of management intervention, typified by the removal of ‘problem’ tigers and their forced relocation to less inhabited reserves elsewhere. Indeed, the Union minister commented on the apparent rise in tiger numbers as an opportunity for India not only to lead tiger recovery in India but also to contribute to efforts across the wider range, donating surplus individuals to other range countries to boost their tiger conservation measures. To some, this notion of assisted colonisation provides an opportunity to increase the potential for wild tiger survival, to others there is a real fear that we are playing God and compromising the wildness of tigers and that future generations of the big cat will exist only as tightly managed populations, commodities to be moved around at the whim of politicians and wildlife managers. It is perhaps a sad reality that as wildlife habitats need to exist in greater proximity to human habitation and, as dispersal is further compromised, so the seal on our pressure cooker becomes tighter and tighter to prevent ingress and conflict. There is a real risk, moving forward, that our valve may become redundant in favour of a manual removal of the lid to relieve excess pressure each time it materialises. This approach would contribute to reserves becoming mere repositories of closely managed boutique tiger populations and as breeding centres able to produce surplus stock to populate and repopulate under-utilised habitat elsewhere. The main fear is that a continued emphasis upon perpetual growth in tiger numbers may ultimately compromise efforts to bring sink areas under more effective management and produce instead a series of unconnected, strictly demarcated reserves within which tigers can be better insulated from external threats.

Fear and loathing in tigerland: a retrospective

For the last post in this sequence on man-eating tigers in India, we need to travel back in time, initially to the unlikely venue of Twycross Zoo in the midlands of England.Twycross zoo logo The year was 1976 and the latest addition to the zoo’s collection was a female tiger cub named Tara. Some 4,500 miles or so to the east, one of the pioneers of Indian tiger conservation, Billy Arjan Singh, had received the approval of prime minister Indira Gandhi to undertake a unique experiment in Dudhwa tiger reserve on the borders of Nepal. It had been widely argued by tiger experts that captive-bred tigers could not be introduced into existing tiger territories and Singh was determined to prove them wrong. Following a protracted search for a suitable candidate, Tara was finally selected and Singh set off for England to embark upon a long drawn out immigration procedure to transport the cub to her new home in northern India. Bogged down in the bureaucratic quagmire of Indian officialdom, the task proved to be far from simple. But Singh was persistent, a pugnacious character for whom the inevitable controversy proved no barrier to his efforts to challenge the assumption that such an introduction was impossible. And controversy was to be a constant companion to Tara as she negotiated the long road to freedom. For Singh, the process was a difficult one as he patiently accompanied Tara on regular walks around the territory he had selected for her, with his home ‘Tiger Haven’ at its centre.

There was no exact science involved in this experiment and Singh was concerned about the long-term effects of his training methods, well aware that the role of surrogate mother came with certain responsibilities. How should Tara be disciplined? If left undisciplined then the tigress could ultimately lose her respect and fear of humans, turning her into a potential man-eater whenever prey became difficult to secure. To impose too much discipline, however, carried the threat of inhibiting her hunting instincts with a similar result. There was no manual available in this regard as no experiment of this nature had ever been attempted before. It was this type of uncertainty that influenced the mixed responses to the wisdom of such an approach. While some applauded Singh’s efforts as a revolutionary attempt to safeguard the future of wild tigers at a time in which Project Tiger was in its infancy, others dismissed it as a reckless experiment that could ultimately jeopardise the entire population of Dudhwa’s existing tigers.dudhwa-national-park__381873014

In the event, the timing of the project proved to be unfortunate as a series if events conspired against any smooth rehabilitation effort. Firstly, the political climate in India was, for perhaps the first time since independence, highly uncertain. Indira Gandhi, a key supporter of the initiative, was removed from power at the general election following her unpopular suspension of democracy during the so-called ’emergency’. As all of Singh’s agreements fell under the authority of the previous government, it was difficult for him to get the new administration to intervene in disputes with the local authorities. This reflected a broader problem in which politicians recognised that the issue of a tiger introduction of this kind was unlikely to gain support among a nervous local community and could therefore be viewed as a vote liability. Secondly, Tara’s arrival coincided with political upheaval across the border in Nepal, where deforestation was rampant and, with threats to tigers mounting there, inward migration to india’s better protected forests ensued. Thirdly, the Uttar Pradesh state government, mindful of the need to develop local villages, embarked upon a programme of income generating opportunities for those living in and around its protected area system. This brought the needs of the economy and the environment into stark conflict and hastened the migration of people into the vicinity to take advantage of the benefits on offer.

As more and more people descended on Dudhwa and its periphery, intensified poaching of prey species resulted in a growing paucity of food sources available to the reserve’s resident tigers. Sugar plantations abutted the protected area boundaries and humans increasingly entered the reserve to satisfy their demand for firewood. The result of such practices was inevitable, increasing human-tiger conflict, giving rise to a spate of human fatalities which, over the coming years, deteriorated further into an epidemic of man-eating.

Billy Arjan Singh with Leopard
Before the Tara introduction, Singh had rehabilitated Leopards into Dudhwa

It was within this fragile climate that Billy Arjan Singh sought to rehabilitate his captive-bred tigress into the wild. Add to this the fact that a mature tigress had already established part of her territory in the zone that Singh had identified for Tara, forcing him to intervene in an attempt to deter her continuing occupation, and the whole experiment became increasingly complex. Ultimately, Tara’s introduction to Dudhwa was successfully achieved and she went on to live and breed within the reserve. The controversy continued to rage, however, as this period coincided with an increase in man-eating incidents, for which Tara was identified as a prime suspect.

Whilst evidence linking Tara to the killings was flimsy at best, Singh was convinced that the authorities were using her as a convenient scapegoat, as well as to even up some old scores associated with his increasing criticism of the performance of the forest authorities. The situation descended into farce as, in one breath, the forest director claimed that he had successfully eradicated Tara and in the next, continued to blame her for a continuing escalation of man-killing activity. Singh, with his intimate knowledge of Dudhwa, argued that the current scale of conflict could not be attributed to any single event but, instead, reflected a series of problems afflicting the reserve, not least the presence of increasing numbers of people all seeking to satisfy their subsistence needs.

Billy with Tara the tiger
Billy with Tara

Stressing the need for proactive solutions, Singh proposed a number of interventions, most of which were ignored by the forest department in favour of reactive measures. In short, the mantra remained ‘tiger kills man, man kills tiger’. The payment of compensation, albeit in meagre amounts, supported by the lethal removal of problem tigers, represented the agreed management response, even though this had little effect in removing the obstacles to the effective coexistence of humans and tigers.

Singh’s proposed interventions, on the other hand, were prescient and continue to retain credibility today. He argued for the creation of effective buffer zones to better manage the immediate zone of conflict and the fencing in of livestock to prevent their ingress into tiger habitat. This, he proposed, should be backed up by efforts to reduce the dependence of people on forest resources. This could be achieved in a number of ways, firstly by paying farmers to desist from planting sugar cane up to the boundaries of the reserve, thus offsetting the opportunity costs associated with foregone production. Secondly, efforts to protect the reserve from deforestation required investment in bio-fuel cookers for nearby villagers and the identification of alternative food sources to help deter any unsustainable off take of the tiger’s prey species. If the forest was being cleared of both timber and ungulate species, Singh argued, then a continuing increase in conflict was inevitable. And, most importantly, unless this situation was challenged urgently, then any residue of local support for conservation would be completely eroded, provoking a rash of revenge killings which could ultimately result in the total extirpation of tigers from the reserve.

In the event, a committee was established and whilst this largely supported Singh’s reading of the causes behind the escalating conflict, it ignored his suggested responses, perhaps primarily on the grounds of prohibitive cost. Despite the claim that Tara had been shot, she was evidently still very much alive and active at this time and her success in breeding created a new controversy, surrounding her alleged mixed ancestry. As we have discussed previously, the issue of genetic pollution has proved to be an ongoing obstacle to efforts to the achievement of heterogeneity of isolated tiger populations. Even before Tara was fully habituated into the wild, her appearance was considered by some to be suspect, suggesting that she was not a pure-bred Bengal tiger but a hybrid of some kind. As her offspring began to appear, these concerns intensified amidst reports of the sighting of a young tiger with distinct markings reminiscent of the Amur subspecies. To Singh, this was immaterial, and he argued that genetic heterogeneity was more important that any idealistic pursuit of purity. If wild tigers were to survive into the future then it was essential to boost their resilience, their ability to survive changing environmental conditions. He was, nevertheless interested in ascertaining the validity of the claim and in determining whether or not Tara was indeed the mother of the suspected hybrid. If she was, he surmised, then this provided evidence of the success of his experiment, proving his detractors wrong. It also meant that there may be a role moving forward for captive-bred tigers to repopulate vacant habitat. In the event, tests showed that the suspected hybrid was indeed a cub of Tara’s and equally, that its lineage showed evidence of an Amur ancestor.

Over the intervening period, Tara’s culpability in the human deaths of the time has never been proven or disproven but common sense would suggest that it is extremely unlikely that all the man-killings could be attributed to her alone. What is perhaps the most worrying issue, however, is the fact that many of the same arguments are being rehearsed as to the current rise in man-eating episodes. Not much has really changed. Dudhwa today is far from an extraordinary case, with incidences of human-tiger conflict roughly consistent with other reserves in the range. But, across the national estate of tiger reserves, the proactive approach proposed by Billy Arjan Singh is once again gaining traction. Today, perhaps, the emphasis is upon the resettlement of human populations away from the core areas of the reserves but, in reality, the pressures witnessed today are eerily reminiscent of those witnessed in and around Dudhwa during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Obviously, the resettlement process is unlikely to be achieved over the short term, so the need to find ways to mitigate human-tiger conflict is once again high on the management agenda. As argued previously, the future of the wild tiger is inextricably linked to the conditions endured by the human populations that co-inhabit the range and, in order to build a strong constituency of support for conservation, proactive steps need to be taken to reduce the poverty experienced by local villagers.

Equally, as we will consider in future posts, the theme of buffer zones is far from resolved, resulting in the intervention of the Supreme Court back in 2012 to legally require state governments to ensure that such areas are declared and managed appropriately. While this is a welcome, albeit overdue, development, other impediments remain to ensure that conflicts remain entrenched in areas of tiger habitation. Perhaps one of the most important of these unresolved policy failures surrounds the continuing reluctance of decision makers to provide legal protection for sink regions and their dispersal corridors. More and more tigers confined to a declining habitat base is, on its own, a recipe for disaster. But, add to this a growing stream of landless, marginalised humans inhabiting the same areas and the effects may ultimately prove catastrophic to both humans and wildlife. For too long, we have, somewhat complacently, relied on the resilience of tigers to withstand such pressures but, as recent events prove, this is not necessarily sufficient to stave off their extirpation from some of india’s high profile reserves. Remember Sariska, Panna and, most recently Buxa? Perhaps the small contribution that Tara’s introduction provided in reinvigorating the genetic diversity of Dudhwa’s tigers will prove to be beneficial in this regard, although the reality remains that we need to respond more quickly to threats as and when they appear. Equally, we need to anticipate the emergence of such dangers and to proactively influence their amelioration through the identification and integration of proactive conservation policies.

Newspaper headline from March 1982. "Man eating Tiger blamed for killings
Newspaper headline from March 1982

Against all the odds, and thanks to committed individuals like Billy Arjan Singh, Dudhwa’s tigers have survived, but for how long? Perhaps now it now high time to revisit some of his prescriptions, not least in supporting the communities living in and around areas that harbour growing tiger populations. Whatever the pros and cons surrounding the Tara controversy may be, they are largely irrelevant to the ongoing debate, although they have provided us with a useful vehicle with which to discuss the ongoing inertia of forest authorities in responding to emerging challenges. It is evident that tigers need the support and tolerance of their human neighbours if they are to continue to thrive and that this needs to be at the forefront of deliberations by the conservation movement. After all, as the American historian Roderick Nash pointed out, environmental conservation is essentially a ‘full stomach phenomenon’ and, in order to subscribe to efforts to save the tiger, poverty amongst local communities must be eradicated.

 

 

Delta Blues: man-eating tigers of the Sunderbans

Within my last post ‘Back on the menu’ I resisted the temptation to include the Sunderbans in the discussions surrounding an increase in man eating activity among india’s tigers. There are two reasons for this omission. Firstly, man eating events in the Sunderbans have never really subsided and, secondly, there is an influential body of opinion to suggest that some of its resident tigers may be habitual man eaters. There is, however, an equally persuasive argument that this is a myth and that the majority of such incidents are largely serendipitous, due to accidental encounters. How has such a depiction evolved and what is being done to mitigate the risks of man-tiger conflict in this unique environment? Initially, it is instructive to consider the environment here and what makes it so unique.

Map of the Sunderbans
The Sunderbans: a unique mangrove habitat

Many of the realities of life here in the Sunderbans are counterintuitive, contributing to its mystique, giving rise to supernatural tales of shape shifting between tigers and people, reflected in the customs of a deeply religious and superstitious people. Here, tree roots grow upwards towards the sky, land disappears and reappears elsewhere, causing maps to be withdrawn in the space of years rather than decades.Tigers are strong swimmers and can launch themselves from the water on to boats from which they are known to carry away human prey. The big cats, rarely seen, have had to adapt to life in habitats that morph into uninhabitable subterranean environments, wiping out evidence of their occupancy on a regular basis, forcing tigers to constantly reinvent and redraw their territories.

Located above the Bay of Bengal, straddling both India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans represents the largest mangrove complex in the world. For many years, this region was believed to contain the world’ largest single concentration of wild tigers in a contiguous landscape, numbering anywhere between 400-500 individuals. Recent estimates, however, tell a different story, with the number revised down to just 182 (106 in Bangladesh and 76 in India). On the Indian side, the tiger reserve covers an area in excess of 1,330 square kilometres along the Ganges delta. The reserve is markedly different in character from that of other tiger habitats in India. It is also a particularly inaccessible and inhospitable landscape, its many islands constantly remoulded by tidal activity, its banks ravaged by the effects of severe cyclones travelling north through the Bay of Bengal. Here, the resulting tidal waves may rise as high as 76 metres (250 feet) and there are anywhere between 4-8 cyclonic depressions every year. It is also the tiger reserve at most immediate risk from climate change. The author Amitav Ghosh describes a series of river channels criss-crossing the land like a ‘fine net mesh’ sculpting a landscape in which the boundaries between earth and water are blurred, ‘always mutating, always unpredictable’. This caprice creates significant problems for the Sunderbans’ tigers.

Mangrove trees in sand
The geography of the Sunderbans is constantly changing.

Much if its territory is tenuous and impermanent, washing away periodically before emerging elsewhere and, where it remains, subject to a constant dousing of water with a high saline content. This tidal flow washes away urine and scat that has been deposited by tigers to demarcate their territorial claims. Consequently, in the absence of such markers, the tigers here have to work particularly hard to secure and protect their territories, with any incursions defended with aggression. It is here that local villagers, and other humans active in the area (an estimated 4 million people) are most at risk and aware of the dangers that lurk within the dense mangrove vegetation.

Locals in boat
Over four million people are known to use the Sunderbans to meet their subsistence needs

Tigers are rarely seen here, at least until it’s too late, yet signs of the big cat’s presence are visibly evident in the mud and silt, mapping its omnipresence and recent movements in a graphic warning to would be interlopers. Yet life for many of the area’s human inhabitants is far from easy and, in order to secure their livelihoods they are forced to intrude on the world of the tiger, with often serious consequences. Setting out to collect wood and gather honey, their crouched bodies are sometimes mistaken for prey and taken swiftly by the striped predator. Yet these communities remain surprisingly tolerant of tigers, respecting and fearing them in equal measure. Their anger, when a person is mauled and killed, is often directed not at the tiger but at the authorities who are failing to protect them. A feeling that tigers are valued more than people is a common refrain heard across India, particularly in areas that attract a large influx of tourists. These communities, although incognisant of the language of science, nevertheless understand the role the tigers play in protecting the forest. They may not understand technical terms like trophic cascade but express in their own words the dangers associated with the tiger’s function as a guardian of the forest. For the forest is their lifeblood, without it they would not be able survive. They understand, therefore, that the future of the forest, and themselves, is inextricably linked with the persistence of the tiger. An uncomfortable, yet very real truth, for the mangroves provide a buffer against the constant bombardment of tidal and cyclone activity, dampening the power of such surges. They protect not only the immediate locales but play a vital role also in safeguarding the millions of people that populate the nearby mega cities of Kolkata and Dhaka.

To survive in such an environment, both tigers and people must adapt. The Sunderbans tigers have thus become strong swimmers and have learned to climb trees to protect themselves against tidal surges which can increase water levels by as much as 4.6 metres (15 feet).

Tiger in mangrove swamp
Tigers in the Sunderbans are strong swimmers and have been known to lift human victims from boats

They must learn to survive on drinking water that has a high saline content, although it is believed that this can make tigers particularly fractious, prompting the authorities to institute a network of fresh waterholes in an attempt to curb this aggression. Additionally, in areas where prey is difficult to locate, these fresh water supplies can also attract sources of meat. Indeed, in such an unforgiving landscape, wildlife managers are intervening further through the piloting of breeding centres for larger-bodied ungulate species to boost the prey base. Otherwise, it is feared, humans will continue to be mistaken for prey, exacerbating the already deeply-rooted man-tiger conflicts that plague the region. Other innovations have been developed in an attempt to reduce the incidence of human deaths attributed to tigers. When tigers attack, their preferred method is to take their victims from behind, causing death by a powerful bite to the back of the neck. In order to confuse tigers, locals have long been supplied with face masks to be worn on the backs of their heads.

locals with masks on the back of their heads
Face masks issued to local villagers to deter tiger attacks

Electrified scarecrows have also been utilised, carrying a charge sufficient to cause discomfort and create a fear of humans that appears to have bypassed the Sunderbans tigers. Some claim that these mangrove tigers have not learned to fear humans to the same extent that those elsewhere in India have. It has been argued that this may stem from the inaccessibility of the landscape, meaning that the various poaching crises have largely failed to impact on the Sunderbans and that the humans encountered here are largely defenceless and poorly armed individuals. In short, these particular humans become easy prey in times of shortage of alternative sources of meat. Add to this the regular supply of human corpses washing into the delta as a consequence of devastating cyclones. Tigers will undoubtedly scavenge these carcasses and may become familiar with human meat as a consequence. Moreover, this familiarity for human meat may be passed on through the tiger generations, hence the habitual man eating label attached to them.

While it is far from certain how many people perish as a result of tiger-related conflicts, it is estimated that there are around 60 attacks per year and that half of these result in death. More sensationalist accounts put this figure far higher, but many accept that many such incidents can be difficult to prove as authentic man eating episodes. For example, there is a fear that some humans may lose their lives in other ways, victims of other people, and that their bodies may be left out in the open so that any evidence of criminal activity disappears. Others argue that some of the people may have died from natural causes and that the presence of the bodies in the mangroves may be due to to the pursuit of compensation claims. So, while it may be difficult to calculate with any accuracy the actual number of human deaths caused by tigers, it is nonetheless likely that the figure is greater than that witnessed elsewhere in the tigers’s range. And, regardless of the true extent, it is essential that such potentially deadly encounters are managed carefully to avoid the further escalation of conflict. While people may be culturally tolerant, this tolerance only stretches so far, and the authorities are in constant fear of any backlash towards themselves and the tigers that they seek to manage and protect.

Another consequence of large human populations in such close proximity to protected tiger habitat is the presence of other animals that function in human societies. In the Sunderbans there is a growing problem associated with stray and feral dogs, many of which carry canine distemper, a virus that can be communicated to other species, including tigers. Control of such dogs is difficult and, although vaccinations are available, they are also expensive and difficult to justify in the context of tight budgetary restrictions. Recently, however, researchers have paid increasing attention to the potential of dogs in helping to reduce incidents of man-tiger conflict. Throughout history, dogs have played an important role as an alarm system to warn us of the presence of intruders and to protect us from the dangers their presence may pose. Piloted by conservation biologist, Adam Barlow and his colleagues, an innovative programme has been devised in the Sunderbans to firstly vaccinate dogs and then to train them as an early warning system to signal the close proximity of tigers, allowing people to anticipate conflict situations and to avoid potentially deadly encounters. While the success of such endeavours are difficult to evaluate at this early stage, the need to pursue such ‘win-win’ scenarios is vital to strengthening the armoury of local communities whose main defence against man eating tigers currently relies heavily on the intervention of deities. Religion and superstition continue to retain significance in the lives of many of the communities inhabiting this region and this plays a major role in maintaining their traditional tolerance for dangerous wildlife. Should these customs become eroded in favour of rationalism then many of the control mechanisms that promote coexistence with wildlife will be undermined, leaving the forest and its inhabitants increasingly at the mercy of economic driven management instruments.

In the Sunderbans, those forced to venture into the mangroves to secure their livelihoods pray for the protection of their local deities.

Colourful statue of the deity
The deity Banbibi – the lady of the forest

Banbibi, the lady of the forest, is called upon by both Hindu and Muslim communities entering the Sunderbans, to beseech her for protection against tiger attacks. Folk lore recognises in her arch enemy, Dakshin Rai, the lord of the south, the ability to rule over beasts and demons, sometimes appearing in the guise of a tiger to take certain interlopers who may be impure in terms of their goodness. It is difficult to reconcile this type of devotion with modern techniques designed to challenge man eating among tigers but, within such superstitions, are the roots of tolerance and respect for wildlife witnessed in the region. It is essential, therefore, that any management strategy designed to reduce the incidence of man-tiger conflict recognises the customary significance of such traditions and blends globally innovative solutions with these more local faith systems that underpin societal structures. This, however, is difficult to achieve within a political system increasingly dedicated to modernisation and the lure of a globalised economy, where traditional customs are equated with backwardness. This attitude represents a clear and present danger to tigers, undermining the coexistence of people and animals, eroding the traditional cultural respect and tolerance that has governed such relationships across the generations. To lose this may prove to be the death knell for these tigers of the Sunderbans and, over time, the mangroves themselves.

I would like to leave the final words of this post to Rathin Banerjee, a former assistant director of the Sunderbans tiger reserve. He explained to the author Sy Montgomery in her 1995 book, Spell of the tiger, that the man eater was the most powerful force protecting the forest. “The tiger” he said “is silently doing the work of ecodiscipline. In that way the tiger is a god – the tiger is looking after the forest, and the forest is looking after it”.

Back on the menu: why are india’s tigers eating people?

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in reports of man-eating among india’s wild tiger population. In early 2014, in the rural hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, at least ten people fell victim to what were thought to be a pair of tigers that had dispersed from the nearby Corbett Tiger Reserve in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand. Further incidents were reported in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. During a five week period from late December 2013 to mid January 2014, no fewer than 17 people were estimated to have become victims of such man-eaters. This situation had major repercussions within the affected areas and threatened to undermine the already fragile relationship that existed between wildlife authorities and the local communities residing in proximity to protected reserves. This created not only a significant social cost but also proved to be an economic disaster for many marginalised villagers who could ill-afford to lose out on subsistence and income generating opportunities. The reign of terror had created a situation in which a self-imposed tiger curfew had left schools closed and villagers locked in their homes in fear of their lives. The majority of people inhabiting these wildlife-rich areas work on a daily wage basis and, it was feared that some may starve if the danger to them was not rectified at the earliest possible juncture. Equally, it was feared by wildlife managers that the removal of key staff from the reserves for the purposes of tracking and shooting problem tigers, posed a concomitant risk for security and patrolling activities in the reserves themselves. Reports that such man-eating continues to be on the rise have persisted and it is high time that we pose the question of ‘why are india’s tigers eating people?’

Villagers give tiger a wide berth on forest road
Human communities in Ranthambhore retreat to avoid tiger encounter

There are few events that elicit the same level of fear than the realisation that wild animals may view humans as meat. Acknowledged (albeit by ourselves) to occupy the pinnacle of the food chain, the idea of being consumed as prey is abhorrent to most of us. But that is just what we have become in certain parts of the tiger’s range. When I say we, I do however use the word with caution, as in reality it tends to be the impoverished, marginalised villagers living in proximity to wildlife-rich areas that feature most prominently on the menu. And it is this very proximity that provides us with our first clue as to why this resurgence in man-eating activity may be happening. Many of the human communities that coexist with dangerous wildlife tend to derive at least some of their subsistence needs from the nearby forests. In other words, from tiger habitat. Collecting firewood, gathering honey and grazing their livestock are just a few of the practices widespread in such regions. This inevitably brings people into close contact with tigers and, in the event of a conflict situation, the outcome of this interaction is predictably bad news for the human. This is by no means a new phenomenon, however, as throughout history tigers have claimed their fair share of human meat.

Jim Corbett with the (dead) Champawat tigress
Jim Corbett with the Champawat tigress

Take the example of the Champawat tigress, active from the latter years of the 19th century up until she was finally tracked down and killed by that most famous of hunters, Jim Corbett in 1907. During that period an estimated 436 human victims had been claimed by the tigress. Her fame endures through the writings of Corbett, his fame through the posthumous adoption of his name for india’s oldest national park. Following a cursory postmortem, Corbett confirmed that the tiger had suffered a significant deterioration in the state of her teeth and that this restricted her ability to kill large ungulate prey. Hence, her hunting patterns needed to change and she was forced to switch to easier prey, humans. Body counts this size are of no longer possible due to the significant reduction in the tiger population and the parallel contraction of its habitat. Recent research revealed by the Indian government, however, does illustrate a palpable rise in tiger-related deaths in the country, attributing 72 human fatalities between 2012-2015. This trend is of major concern to wildlife managers and is set to worsen as tigers disperse and colonise sites beyond protected area boundaries. Indeed, recent news from the state of Maharashtra suggests that, contrary to the assumption that tigers have become largely confined within the boundaries of established reserves, a healthy population has now been reported in outlying forest areas. According to research undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society, based on data derived from camera trap technology, an estimated 70 adult tigers now reside outside officially designated areas of protection, using fractured corridors to navigate between forest patches. This is good news for tigers but perhaps less so for the surrounding human communities.

Tiger movement of this kind creates a predicament for wildlife managers and whilst biologically and ecologically it may be desirable, it nevertheless creates certain difficulties that, in turn may lead to unintended consequences. Environment minister Prakash Javedekar has recently emphasised the need to boost the availability of drinking water and food within the existing reserve network in an attempt to prevent dangerous animals from dispersing into human-dominated environments. This is a potentially worrying trend and one that provides us with another clue as to why reports of man-eating may be on the rise. Reserve boundaries are designed to be porous, to act as an enabling mechanism for the distribution of surplus tigers. The outcome of interventions intended to prevent such circulation, alongside unregulated development on the periphery, creates a kind of virtual fence and, as a consequence, the desired porosity becomes compromised. This can increase competition within the species for limited space, especially under a management regime dedicated to the increase of tiger population size. This, in turn, tends to stimulate internecine rivalries, increasing the prevalence of territorial disputes. The resulting combat can be fierce and, as a consequence, increase the incidence of injured tigers forced to leave the safety of the protected reserve. These tigers, as we have seen, pose a considerable threat to local communities, further eroding support for their conservation. It is vital, therefore, within any strategy to manage man-tiger conflict, that an appropriate balance is achieved in the allocation of resources targeting both source and sink sites. Otherwise, there is a fear that the source locations may become akin to pressure cookers with no escape valve to enable the safe release of excess energy.

Now, if we rewind a bit, back to the previous post, it becomes even more difficult to justify the labelling of T24 as a man-eater. He certainly does not fit the profile we are now building and certainly can not be described as an identikit of a habitual man-eater. He was a seemingly healthy specimen that had secured and defended his own territory within the core zone of a protected reserve in which he remained. Moreover, he had successfully sired cubs and managed, with relative ease, to hunt and kill sufficient large-bodied prey to sustain himself. But it is within his former home range of Ranthambhore that we can pick up our next clue as to the rise of man-eating among india’s tigers.

Bengal tigers fighting
Skewed gender structure may intensify internecine conflicts. Photo by Andy Rouse.

Firstly, as tiger numbers increase and dispersal is blocked, stocking densities threaten to exceed established carrying capacity within the source areas. And secondly, in Ranthambhore particularly, it is the gender structure of the expanded population that causes concern. According to biologists, the ideal ratio of female to male tigers is 3:1 reflecting the fact that the range of a tigress is smaller than that of a male whose territory may straddle those of multiple females. Results from the recent tiger estimation, however, suggest that there may in fact be more males than females. In addition, there is a relatively high proportion of sub-adults and cubs resident in the reserve. In a more open, connected landscape matrix, nature would compensate for this skewed gender imbalance by expelling surplus males to establish their territories elsewhere. But, in the absence of functioning corridors they become trapped and, even worse ejected into the human-dominated land on the fringes of the reserves with predictable consequences.

The lack of connecting corridors can lead to increased encounters between tigers and people
The lack of connecting corridors can lead to increased encounters between tigers and people

Finally, in many areas, the poverty of local communities brings them into increasing competition with tigers for food. We tend to think of ungulate species as being the exclusive prey of tigers. In reality, however, herbivores are also pursued by marginalised villagers, providing them with a rich source of protein and sustenance. Simply punishing people for illegal subsistence hunting, without providing opportunities for alternative livelihoods, merely creates a broader constituency of dissent and, in order to earn badly needed money, this makes collusion with poachers a more attractive proposition. The problem, therefore, is not only the management of wildlife but also of people, a task that wildlife management authorities are ill equipped to administer. The Deputy Director of the Corbett reserve explained some of the situations where local villagers put themselves at risk from potential tiger encounters. Many people living in close proximity to reserve boundaries, he claimed, have no access to even the most basic facilities. For many, their homes do not even contain toilets, causing them to go into forest areas to take care of their ablutions. This is avoidable and there are increasing calls for authorities to invest in facilities for marginalised communities as a conflict mitigation technique, rather than coercing them to relocate their homes elsewhere. The message coming from the reserves is that funding is insufficient to effectively manage tigers in both the source and sink areas, so the focus of their actions is becoming increasingly centred on the core areas of the protected areas.

The fear moving forward is that if the growth in tiger numbers continues to be the metric by which India measures its conservation success, that episodes of man-eating will become more commonplace. To avoid this eventuality, wildlife managers need to focus upon a wider area than just the territory contained within existing protected zones. They need to view sources and sinks as connected wholes as well as work closely with local communities to seek ways in which such risks can be reduced. It also needs to be recognised that rural poverty represents an obstacle to effective wildlife protection and that to remedy this, the search for alternative livelihoods needs to be at the core of the conservation agenda. If dispersal corridors continue to be refused legal protection and outlying forests remain inaccessible to tigers, then we can expect increasing media reports of man-eating and the fear that this engenders, living with the expense of protracted hunts to control man-tiger conflict. If the political will to challenge this resurgence in man-eating is unforthcoming, then the future of both the tiger and its human neighbours is set to become even more demanding in the years ahead.

I would like to conclude this post on a somewhat different note, by reflecting on our different responses to the presence of a man-eater at large. Our reactions are shaped by our circumstances and our relative proximity to the dangers inherent in such a situation. They reflect our socio-economic status and, for many of us looking on from a safe distance, an evident hierarchy of concern has evolved with the tiger established as the main focus of our interest. We tend to view the endangerment of the tiger as a product of human intervention and greed and, perhaps, incidents of man-eating may be the price we need to pay in order to ensure their continued existence. Further down our hierarchy lies concern for our fellow humans, those that are forced to pay such a price for our collective profligacy. These are the poverty-stricken, faceless villagers that suffer the terrors and predations of these man-eaters, competing with them for scarce resources. Whilst we commiserate with their predicament, our sympathies nevertheless lie with the tiger and many of us will translate our concern into opportunities to visit their territories in order to view for ourselves the fragile splendour of the last remaining big cats. Indeed, the presence of a man-eater may add a little frisson to our experience yet, cocooned as we are in our own protective bubble, fears of actual harm to ourselves are at best minimal. But, outside of this bubble, the fear is palpable; the risk is very real, with the ensuing conflicts disastrous to both humans and tigers. We need to reconcile ourselves with this reality, that the future of tigers in the wild is inextricably linked to the futures of the impoverished rural communities that share their living space.

Close up of tiger eye.
If we are to ensure the future of tigers in the wild it is essential to challenge rural poverty

We need to communicate this knowledge to those that plan and design our conservation strategies, rather than to tacitly accept that such conflict is the price we have to pay to ensure the persistence of tigers in the wild. The last words must go to Stephen Moss, abstracted from his review of David Quammen’s 2004 book ‘Monster of God’. “To put it bluntly” he says “rich people are entertained by predators, poor people are eaten by them”.

Hero or villain? – the battle for tiger T24 of Ranthambhore

On May 8th 2015, news emerged from India that a 56 year old forest guard employed in one of the country’s premier tiger reserves had been mauled and killed by one of its resident tigers. It later transpired that the alleged attacker was tiger T24 (or Ustad as he is also known) and that, far from being an isolated incident, the guard was in fact the fourth victim attributed to this particular big cat over a five year period. The reserve in question was Ranthambhore, located in the northern state of Rajasthan and the tiger was one of its most most famous and photographed residents. Establishing its territory in zone 1 of the reserve, T24 was one of the most frequently encountered tigers in Ranthambhore and consequently he had become a major draw for tourists. The previous deaths attributed to T24 included two local villagers and a second forest guard, all taken on separate occasions. In two of the reported incidents, parts of the bodies had been consumed whilst in the other events, including the latest, it was speculated that rescuers arrived promptly to retrieve the carcasses before they could be eaten. This, in the opinion of the local authorities in the reserve, was sufficient to label T24 as a man eater. But is he?

Tiger T24 -emerging from the undergrowth
Tiger T24 – One of the most photographed tigers in India

This is a difficult question to tackle. Just because a tiger may kill and consume all, or part, of a human does not automatically make him a man eater. To achieve this dubious distinction requires the recognition of a number of other factors at play. Firstly, it must be established that a tiger has lost its fear of humans and has actively taken to stalking them as a prey species. Secondly, this behaviour should be a regular occurrence as opposed to an isolated, or series of isolated, incidents. In both cases, the evidence against T24 would appear to be inconclusive. Let us consider the testimony provided by two of the ‘rescuers’ that arrived on the scene within half an hour of the attack taking place. T24, they claimed, had to be chased away from the corpse to prevent it from being eaten. Both witnesses retracted an initial assertion that the tiger continued to hold the victim’s body by the neck as the rescue car arrived, following a subsequent admission that they were not present at the time of retrieval. Both men, however, remain convinced of the dangers inherent in the tiger’s continued presence in the reserve. Valmik Thapar, doyen of Ranthambhore and its tigers, falls short of classifying T24 as a man eater but nevertheless supports this assessment, claiming that in all his years of experience this particular tiger is the most dangerous that he has encountered. This view, however, is by no means universal.

Bina Kak, a former minister in the state government, dismisses the so-called evidence as subjective and, at best, speculative, producing a photograph of a recent encounter between the alleged man eater and a party of three women carrying fuel wood through its territory.

Tiger watching villagers traverse his territory.
Bina Kak’s photo of a close encounter.

Following a cursory glance at the humans, T24 turned and retreated from any potential encounter. Furthermore, the fact that religious pilgrims regularly traverse the tiger’s territory in order to effect access to a temple, provides further ammunition as to T24’s continuing tolerance of humans, as does the constant stream of tourist traffic seeking photographic opportunities. If we subscribe to this particular argument, the evidence would suggest that in each episode it was most likely a chance encounter that created a situation in which T24 killed essentially as a self defence mechanism. The subsequent consumption of human flesh is not sufficient to label him a man eater and, as a consequence, management should seek to prevent the incidence of such encounters moving forward. Reports of the most recent attack may in fact support this scenario, with the forest guard allegedly searching for T24 in dense vegetation, behind a hedgerow.

This argument becomes even more persuasive when we consider the location in which the attacks took place. In each instance, the events occurred within the confines of the tiger reserve, an area set aside for the protection of tigers against the insidious influences of human intrusion. Within these inviolate spaces, tigers are provided the security to act like tigers and, however regrettable the human cost may be, such encounters need to be managed carefully. If the attacks were to take place outside this zone of protection then the resulting decision may point towards more radical action but, in light of the remit granted to India’s protected areas, the burden of evidence must rest with the authorities to categorically prove the tiger in question to be a confirmed man eater before any decision as to its removal can be justified. And here, an established set of procedures exist to formalise such arrangements.

Such arguments provide us with an interesting academic debate but, in the immediate locale, reserve staff and local communities understandably fear the potential for future attacks. Responding to concerns for their personal safety in the aftermath of the latest incident, forest guards threatened to engage in strike activity should the authorities decide that T24 could remain in the reserve. If acted upon, such strike action may have increased the ever present threat from poachers operating in the area. Moreover, reserve managers feared a backlash from local communities residing in proximity to Ranthambhore and viewed this to be a clear and present danger to all the tigers contained in the park, not just T24. Concerns like these are supported by evidence from previous conflict situations of this nature, where a rapidly deteriorating relationship with, and erosion of trust in, forest authorities have culminated in direct action by local communities, involving the indiscriminate killing of wildlife. Here, the conservation ethic favours protection of tigers in the plural, meaning that there may be a justification for the sacrifice of an individual animal in order to ensure greater security for the whole population.

a dead tiger with a crowd of onlookers
Retaliatory killings are common following incidents of man eating

As it transpired, local pressures were building as the forest department was criticised for inactivity and, in a quest to defuse such a potentially incendiary situation, officials decided that it was time to act. There were four main options available. T24 would be allowed to remain in his territory, subject to enhanced vigilance and observation; he would be translocated to another reserve with less pressure from human intrusion; he would be removed and relocated to a captive facility; or his life would be terminated. In the event, within a week of the fatal attack, a decision was taken to track and tranquillise the tiger and transport him over 400km to a zoological facility in Udaipur. This may appear on the surface to have been a sensible course of action, but few people at the time could have anticipated the level of controversy such a decision would cause.

As the column inches dedicated to the T24 situation mounted up, the tiger quickly became a cause célèbre on social media. Facebook campaigns emerged to demand ‘Ustad’s’ return to the wild and to urge tourists to ‘boycott’ Ranthambhore until the situation had been satisfactorily resolved. A concerted campaign on twitter clamoured for T24’s immediate release and, amidst a profusion of associated hashtag demands, the #bringbackustaad campaign was quickly translated into a physical movement.

Poster with caption - A tigers real home is the jungle. Free Ustad"
The Save Ustad campaign drew considerable support on social media

Candlelit vigils and sit-down demonstrations appeared across India, soon spreading to other major cities across the world. What would happen to T24’s cubs? the protestors asked. In all likelihood the cubs would be killed by the rival male that moved in to claim T24’s vacant territory in order to bring their mother quickly back into oestrus so that mating could take place. Time was therefore deemed to be of the essence and a campaigner from Pune wasted little time in filing a petition at the Rajasthan High Court to demand the tiger’s reinstatement to Ranthambhore. But as so often in India, the wheels of justice turn at an unerringly slow pace and, in an attempt to accelerate the process, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court in an attempt to fast track the hearing. The ultimate outcome of this action was the court’s support for the status quo, although the Ranthambhore authorities were required to submit a full report to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) setting out the reasons for T24’s removal from the reserve. The NTCA provides a clear protocol to states for dealing with the issue of man eating tigers and, in this case, the decision was taken without their advice being sought or their approval given.

In a subsequent report, the NTCA concluded that T24 should not have been classified as a man eater and that the decision to remove him to a captive facility was therefore unwarranted. The judgement was predicated on the grounds that evidence pointed to the fact that humans had ventured too close to the tiger within its territory and, recognising the time lapse between the various attacks, attributed T24’s behaviour as resulting from chance encounters as opposed to any premeditated action on the part of the tiger. Moreover, the NTCA censured the Rajasthan state government for failing to comply with the requirements of section 11 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and gaining the requisite permissions before unilaterally deciding upon removing the animal from the reserve. Although at the time of writing, T24 remains in captivity in Udaipur and the flow of social media pressure has slowed to a trickle, the NTCA has called for T24’s release back into the wild. Only time will tell where and when this repatriation will take place but it is clear that this unfortunate episode has raised some important issues affecting the future of tiger conservation in India. As with so many stories of this kind, the facts are relatively unimportant as it is the themes that matter and the impact of these moving forward.

In relation to the T24 debate, a number of key issues demand our attention. In the broader scheme of things, the actual decision to relocate the tiger is less important than the process followed in determining its fate. You must have consistency and transparency, hence the existence of clear standard operating procedures that need to be complied with. Perhaps the lack of compliance in this example is indicative of a growing tension and power struggle between the centre (in this case the NTCA) and the state apparatus. Moreover, at the reserve level, management considered it essential to reach a speedy decision to counter increasing dissatisfaction evident within its surrounding communities. The resolution they arrived at entailed trading off the rights of the individual (in this case T24) for the good of the collective (the entire tiger population), an approach consistent with the conservation ethic yet antithetical to the views of animal rights advocates. What emerged was a noticeable difference in the way the situation was understood by urban interests and the rural communities that suffer the predations of such conflict. Those living and working in the immediate vicinity of tiger reserves have to deal with the fear and danger every day, meaning that support can soon be eroded if such incidents are not dealt with swiftly and effectively. On the other hand, social campaigns of the type that emerged in the aftermath of the latest attack appear to be more emotive and indeed ephemeral. As soon as the next controversy appears, like the well publicised slaughter of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hand of an American trophy hunter, so concern is transferred to that particular cause. The task of the decision makers can therefore be seen as as a difficult one, needing to seek an appropriate balance in arriving at a pragmatic decision to defuse such conflict before they become irretrievable. Resisting calls for lethal control in the case of T24, in favour of his removal into captivity was viewed by the authorities as the best way to achieve this.

Tiger T24 in captivity
Tiger T24 captive in Udaipur.

The emotional outpouring witnessed on social media and beyond reflects the growing interest in, and concern for, endangered wildlife. It also signals the emergence of a new form of engagement that constitutes a potentially powerful political lobby in the fight for tigers. Wildlife authorities need to learn a lesson here and seek ways in which to broaden the focus of such concerns and increase the longevity of resulting campaigns. Critics of the current social media campaign decry its limited cynosure and its apparent unwillingness to challenge more potent threats to the tiger’s continuing persistence in the wild. Ideally, this concern needs to be translated into, and sustained through, concerted action against rampant, unregulated development in and around reserves and to demand the levels of political will required to tackle the menace of poaching. If this can be achieved, then whatever the final outcome of the T24 controversy may be, it will mean that Ustad’s fifteen minutes of fame will not have been in vain.

Road to nowhere: reconnecting India’s fragmented tiger reserves

Over the last decade or so, numerous accounts have emerged from India to illustrate the perilous state of its endangered tiger populations. Perhaps the most high profile of these surrounded the extirpation of tigers from the Sariska reserve in Rajasthan in 2004, an event that proved to be the catalyst for a fundamental review of conservation policy in India. The most poignant story I have heard from this period, however, emerged via Prerna Singh Bindra in her book ‘The King and I’. Reporting from one of the lesser known reserves, Palamau in the state of Jharkand, Bindra recounted the sad tale of Rani, a six year old tigress. She was the last remaining member of her species to inhabit the park and she continued to patrol her territory, issuing a series of plaintive calls to attract a suitable mate that no longer existed, oblivious to the futility of her situation. Reality dictated that Rani was doomed to live out the rest of her life in isolation, the last of her kind. The reason behind her enforced solitude was not difficult to comprehend as Palamau had become a virtual island, its connectivity with outlying habitat blocked by a combination of human encroachment and development. The despondency of this tale is compounded by the inescapable fact that such episodes are likely to increase in the future as the permeability of tiger reserves becomes further compromised. And, once critical dispersal corridors are lost, they are notoriously difficult to recreate.

A lone Bengal Tiger on a road
Tigers use roads for patrolling in territories. Image by Suzanne York

David Quammen offers an interesting analogy in this regard, likening the habitat matrix to that of a Persian carpet. In its entirety, the pattern of the carpet is clear, flowing seamlessly across its surface. Imagine though, taking a knife to the carpet and slicing it into a series of smaller squares. The pattern is now disrupted, each edge of each fragment fraying and unravelling further over time, the gaps between becoming more pronounced. Even the most experienced of restorers is unlikely to be able to replicate the original pattern, to fuse the frayed threads back into a semblance of its former connectedness. This is the same for a tiger landscape and, to add a further dimension, the area of decline in each of the remaining habitat fragments becomes subject to an increasing edge effect. In order to explain this phenomenon, let us return to the example of the carpet. Say, in its original state, the carpet measures 10 metres on each of its four sides. This gives us a total edge of 40 metres. It is this area that is more prone to deterioration than any other portion of our carpet and we can see from a quick glance that it has been strengthened by an extra layer of stitching to prevent it from scuffing and fraying. Now, say we cut the carpet into one metre squares and lay these individual fragments side by side in an approximation of the original design. Now, the edges of our individual remnants add up to 400 metres, a ten-fold increase. When the metre-square fragments are initially laid side by side they may fit closely together with only small fissures between, but as the cumulative effects of foot traffic act upon the fabric over time, so the individual edges are revealed and erode at a faster rate. Returning to the core issue of our eroded tiger reserves, this process of fragmentation leaves the remaining habitat patches prone to increased human encroachment and industrial infiltration, accelerating the rate of decline. What were once uninterrupted habitats harbouring healthy tiger populations become a series of disconnected islands as, as we have seen in the previous post, this leaves resident tigers increasingly susceptible to the pernicious effects of inbreeding depression.

The previous article entitled ‘Cat of 9 Tails’ focused on the thorny issue of taxonomic inflation, recognising that the subspecies approach may have inadvertently contributed to a depletion in genetic diversity across the tiger’s geographical range. Today, in India, it is claimed that tigers now occupy a mere seven percent of their historical habitat and that over 90 percent of their number are restricted within the country’s network of protected reserves in at least 76 discrete groups. Two recent studies published in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society B’ in 2013 suggest that, in India at least, this has occurred as a result of an ongoing decline in connectivity between increasingly isolated units of tiger habitat.

tiger and felled tree
Deforestation in and around tiger reserves destroys habitat and fragments dispersal corridors. Image by Christopher Wong.

Loss of habitat has long been viewed as a major obstacle to effective tiger conservation but it is arguably its fragmentation that has exacted the greatest toll on the big cats. A fundamental understanding of tiger culture and behaviour reveals how the blocking of key dispersal routes has led to insularity in modern day tiger populations, an issue that may have dire repercussions for the long-term persistence of the species. In the first paper, researchers studied historical levels of mitochondrial DNA found in tigers that had been hunted during the period of the British Raj, now contained in museums, and compared the data against those of their modern day descendants. Their findings suggested that, over the intervening period, genetic heterogeneity had declined and that only 93 percent of historical DNA variants remained.

Michael Bruford, one of paper’s co-authors, emphasised the link between this loss of diversity and the partitioning of tigers in small pockets of protection that have lost connectivity to outlying forests. “This will not go away until wild places are managed coherently” he argued, adding that the Indian authorities needed to rethink the way in which it measured conservation success, rather than continue to restrict its focus on tiger numbers alone. The second paper picked up on this theme, focusing on tigers inhabiting different zones of the Satpura – Maikal landscape of central India, investigating their genetic make-up to ascertain the extent to which corridors were functional or not. Their results pointed categorically towards the fact that the highest rate of gene flow coincided with sites displaying the greatest habitat connectivity. This, the authors argued, had major implications for conservation policy and practice, consistent with an emphasis on landscape-level protection measures. Here, the broader theme of source-sink dynamics needs to be considered.

Source populations describe those tigers occupying prime habitat in the core areas of inviolate reserves, utilising the available space to establish their territories in prey-rich, protected landscapes suitable for breeding. As their numbers grow, older tigers can become displaced through territorial contest and, as they mature, sub-adults are forced to disperse in order to establish their own territories. In each case, areas on the periphery of reserves act as transit routes, and to be effective, need to connect other source areas to maximise the potential for genetic exchange. The areas between these source locations are known as sinks and these zones contain transient tigers seeking to disperse. They can therefore be seen as sites of potential conflict as tigers come into contact with humans communities living in close proximity to the reserves. It is within these buffer areas through which transient tigers pass, and sometimes settle, that are referred to as sinks. Here, the habitat is less secure and subject to enhanced levels of human presence and associated development pressure. It is also these areas that have become an arena in which a variety of human-tiger conflicts are played out, particularly in those spaces where critical corridors have been disrupted, effectively trapping tigers within human-dominated environments. Remedial activity within these sinks is therefore viewed as a prerequisite in the broader battle for tiger survival.

A tiger crossing a forest road in Pench Tiger Reserve.
A tiger crossing a forest road in Pench Tiger Reserve.

Action to rehabilitate sink areas has tended to play a secondary role to the protection of source populations. This focus on the core areas of tiger reserves is of vital importance as, without successful breeding, movement beyond protected area boundaries remains limited. However, given the reported resurgence in tiger numbers reported in the All-India Tiger Estimation of 2014, the stocking density of certain tiger reserves is rapidly approaching saturation. In this case, the presence of transient tigers seeking to disperse is generating increasing pressure in the sinks. The task of rehabilitating these passages, however complex it may be, is therefore of vital importance to any landscape-level conservation approach. Rigid adherence to the conservation of source populations is no longer a viable proposition and it can be argued that forest officials are currently doing just half the job and that action in the sinks is now imperative. As intimated above, though, this is far from a simple task. There are major hurdles involved in the re-establishment of an appropriately linked-up landscape matrix in sink areas.

stone mine in a tiger reserve
It is not just construction that constitutes a threat to connectivity, but also mining for the minerals to enable it – Sariska Tiger Reserve

These buffer zones are designed to be multiple use in nature and contain human settlements and the supportive infrastructure required to survive in what are perceived to be hostile environments. Marginalised local communities often rely on the availability of firewood to meet their energy needs, also utilising the space to rear and graze their livestock. Here, cattle and goats compete with tiger prey for resources and, in the absence of sufficient prey, domestic livestock becomes an alternative food source for tigers, heightening the potential for conflict.

The future of these sinks remains under pressure for development and, just as its difficult to turn back the clock, it is virtually impossible to hold back time. Recent reviews of india’s inability to sustain its economic growth rate have identified the relative paucity of infrastructure as a determining factor in its failure to match China’s meteoric rise as a global economic powerhouse. This understanding will inevitably contribute to more pressure for infrastructure in and around tiger reserves, evidenced by recent developments in the Kanha-Pench landscape, subject to the construction of National Highways 6 and 7. Effective planning is crucial to such developments and, in an effort to reduce their impacts on endangered wildlife, the introduction of a smart green infrastructure (SGI) approach is essential. SGI is a planning mechanism and is based on the identification of a hierarchy of mitigation responses, consisting of four distinct options: avoidance, minimisation, restoration and offset. These categories reflect the extent to which any proposed infrastructure is required and provides planners with a series of options in countering the associated decline in habitat connectivity as a consequence of development. Roads are undoubtedly a threat to tiger dispersal.

dead tiger on National Highway 212 Bandipur
Tigers are rarely killed on roads, but roadkill incidents are not unknown – National Highway 212 Bandipur 2003

While road kill incidents remain comparatively rare, highways nevertheless create a major barrier to tiger mobility and can fracture historical dispersal corridors. Proponents of SGI claim, however, that new developments of this kind may also provide an opportunity to enhance connectivity, while opponents view it as just another justification for development to take place in vulnerable natural venues.

Let us now consider some of the benefits that may accrue from the adoption of the SGI process. Firstly, it embeds wildlife concerns into the planning process and creates a situation, in theory at least, where applications may be refused, or roads re-routed, if they are deemed to be detrimental to conservation objectives. Secondly, if such developments do receive a green light, which they inevitably will in most cases, then the SGI process demands that minimisation of resulting disruption must be considered and acted upon. This is perhaps more feasible than the avoidance option. Restricting our focus to the construction of roads it is useful at this point to consider one potential scenario. In places where transport networks intersect with key migration routes, it is possible to construct underpasses or to raise the level of roads to enable the safe passage of wildlife. Where potential accident hotspots can be identified, these can be fenced off in order to channel animals towards safer crossing points where strict, enforceable speed regulations can be imposed. This could be supported by the fitting of CCTV technology to monitor not just speed transgressions but as an early warning system to the presence of suspected poachers. In recognition of the expanded edge effect that such developments create, the issue of compensatory and offset investments can be used not only to fund increased patrols in vulnerable areas but also to provide services to local communities. This is vital in areas where human-tiger conflicts are deeply entrenched and may prove to be a way in which to reduce the incidence of such conflict and build support for wildlife within these marginalised communities.

At present it is unclear how successful SGI will prove to be in protecting vulnerable tiger corridors. Indeed, in India, it remains far from certain that it will even be adopted as a central component of the planning process. What is clear, however, is that in the absence of remedial action in sink areas, tiger landscapes are likely to lose their connectivity altogether.

A traffic jam through a tiger reserve
Bandipur Tiger Reserve – Heavy through traffic threatens tiger dispersal

Today, these areas are subject to no legal protection and concern is thus mounting that the fabric of tiger habitats will become increasingly frayed, unravelling at a greater pace over time as development opportunities are taken up. Without action being taken to reverse this trend, there are two outcomes that are likely to emerge. First, emphasis on the exclusive protection of source sites may culminate in tigers existing as boutique populations, requiring enhanced levels of human intervention to effect the levels of genetic exchange sufficient to perpetuate the species over the long-term. The resulting tiger groups may become, to all intents and purposes, captive, existing merely for show to the hordes of tourists descending on the remaining showcase parks. Second, the tiger may be abandoned to its own devices, left to slowly succumb to the injurious effects of inbreeding depression. Here, we may be creating more Ranis, isolated tigers forced to wander aimlessly down roads that lead nowhere, waiting impotently for the demise of their species. Neither scenario provides much hope for the future of the tiger in the wild, so it is vital that we act now to protect and, where needed, restore our carpet, to reconnect all of its fibres to make it as complete as possible, before decay becomes irreversible and the tiger becomes lost to the wild forever.

 

 

Cat of nine tails – is the preoccupation with taxonomy compromising effective tiger conservation?

They say that a cat has nine lives but does it also have nine subspecies? This is a debate that has reopened recently in response to a paper published in the journal ‘Science Advances’ in which the authors claimed that, in reality, there may be only two extant subspecies. What does it matter? Well, claim the authors of the latest study, the current emphasis on taxonomy may be harming the practical application of effective conservation strategies across the tiger’s geographical range. It may be restricting opportunities to reinvigorate genetically-depleted populations and to develop and employ integrated strategies in efforts to ensure the long-term persistence of the species in the wild. More money is spent on the protection of tigers than for any other species, reflecting the global popularity of the largest of the big cats. But how effectively is this money being invested? At present, clinging to what may be an outdated understanding of genetic heterogeneity fragments the employment of such capital in responding to modern day realities affecting tiger protection. Before investigating this issue further it is first essential to understand the how and why of such taxonomic classification.

Tiger subspecies of the world: bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, Siberian, Sumatran, South China,  Javan, Caspian, Balinese
A graphic illustration of conventional sub-species classification by Jenny Parks.

The concept of the subspecies is a way in which to recognise variability within a species, both in terms of its geographical distribution and its morphology. Not all geographical differences are deemed sufficient, however, for such a taxonomic departure as these may be viewed as being clinal in nature, or to put it simply, gradual changes to certain characteristics exhibited by adjacent populations of the same species. So, while geographical distance may be an indicator of taxonomic differentiation, it is not necessarily sufficient. Why? Well, tigers are a mobile species. They move around, they shift to other territories to enrich the genetic make-up. At least they do if the dispersal routes are free from obstruction, which sadly today few are. For this reason, scientists have estimated the maximum dispersal distance of tigers as being up to 1,000 kilometres. Tigers are, therefore recognised as a highly adaptable species and their historical range encompasses a variety of different habitat types. From the frozen taiga landscapes of the Russian far-east to the steaming jungles of the Indonesian islands, tigers have colonised a surprising number of ecotypes.

As these areas differ so much in terms of their physical and climatic structure, so tigers have developed traits to ensure success in their various homelands. The northern tigers, having to endure the sub-zero, snowy conditions of the higher latitudes, have assumed larger bodies, carrying more fat to insulate them from the severe winters. Their coats tend to be longer, their colour (or pelage) a paler tint and their stripe patterns wider apart than their southern counterparts. In contrast, the smaller, slighter Sumatran tigers are brighter in colour with their stripes set closer together, similar to the now extinct Balinese and Javan varieties. In terms of the other extant subspecies, similarities are so close that differentiation remains a difficult task. Similarly, some variation in morphological features, such as cranial size, do occur, but once more it is difficult to attribute this to the emergence of a subspecies. Indeed, critics of the resulting taxonomic classifications argue that the underlying science may be flawed due to the use of small data sets and, in some cases these date back over a hundred years. Hence, the whole foundation of the subspecies approach is open to question, with the authors of the latest study arguing that, instead of recognising nine subspecies this should be reduced to just two; the northern (mainland Asia) and southern (Sumatran) groups.

As science and technology continue to develop at a rapid pace, so too do the tools available to researchers and, recently, genetic studies have provided conservation with fresh insights as to the state and structure of the world’s remaining tiger populations. What has emerged from the resulting literature has been a recognition that the tiger is perhaps the least diverse of the big cats and that, genetically, there is an urgent need to replenish gene pools within its beleaguered numbers. This, it can be argued, is in direct contradiction of the taxonomic restrictions imposed by a proliferation of subspecies, described as ‘taxonomic inflation’. Part of this limited genetic base can be attributed to historical events which have led to a series of demographic contractions over time, reducing the breeding stock available to propagate the species. This situation has left tigers susceptible to the effects of inbreeding depression and, today, only an estimated 1,000 females remain to repopulate a diminishing range.

This situation has undoubted ramifications for the future of tiger conservation. It is perhaps inconceivable that the plight of the tiger will improve dramatically over the coming decades. Indeed, it is far more likely that, as human populations and economies expand even further in the foreseeable future, so too will threats to this charismatic species. The good news (albeit contentious) radiating from the recent tiger population estimations in both India and Russia, needs to be read with caution, not least in terms of apparently expanding numbers offset by a diminished habitat range. It is hard to escape the fact that the tiger is a conservation-dependent species and one that will struggle to survive without human intervention. Moving forward, it is likely that this required intervention will become increasingly pervasive and driven by scientific innovation. This may involve a range of reintroduction and relocation initiatives, perhaps ultimately from captive bred specimens. In this case, blind adherence to the notion of taxonomic purity may restrict rather than facilitate efforts to rejuvenate diversity in tiger populations, an unintended consequence of which may be its ultimate extinction in the wild.

To illustrate this concern, a recent report in the Washington Post has likened the situation to that affecting another big cat, the Florida panther.

Florida Panther on log.
The Florida Panther – Rebounding from near extinction

During the early 1990s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the writing was on the wall for this species. Its numbers had declined alarmingly due to a combination of habitat degradation, development and human intolerance and, with less than 30 individuals remaining, its remaining population was insufficient to ensure its persistence in the wild. It had entered a genetic bottleneck that was difficult, if not impossible to reverse. It was accepted that, without radical remedial action, the Florida panther was likely to be relegated to the status of a ‘relic’ species, which in the words of Professor Stephen Meyer from MIT, are forced to occupy “the margins in ever-decreasing numbers and spatial distribution” before descending further to become ‘ghost’ species whose extinction is inevitable. Heavily blighted by inbreeding depression and its accompanying genetic defects, time was clearly running out and, in a last-ditch effort to save the Florida panther, the difficult decision was taken to introduce eight female Texas cougars to rejuvenate the gene pool.

But how difficult was the decision in reality? The truth remained that the Florida panther and the Texas cougar were very closely related and the decision came down to one key question. Do we simply let the Florida panther disappear or do we instead relax the taxonomic idealism and make the more pragmatic choice to intervene?

Close up image of a Texas Cougar
The Texas Cougar – Providing the required genetic inputs to ensure the persistence of the Florida Panther

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism prevailed and, today, the panther (albeit with a little help from its friends) has rebounded to somewhere between 100-180 individuals. Whilst their future remains far from assured they have at least enjoyed a stay of execution from the permanence of extinction. This story has evident parallels with that of the tiger. The question, across Asia, is startlingly similar. Do we accept some degree of genetic pollution or do we instead cling valiantly to a naive belief in genetic purity at the expense of the species as a whole, based on what increasingly appears to be a flimsy base of evidence? To answer this question more fully, it is useful at this juncture to return briefly to the turnaround in the tiger’s fortunes in India. As discussed in my previous post, despite the controversy surrounding the operation of the latest All-India tiger estimation, tiger numbers are generally regarded to be on an upward trajectory. This apparent growth, however, appears to be occurring primarily in a series of strictly demarcated parks reserved for tiger conservation, while outside their boundaries increasing levels of human activity are having a detrimental effect of blocking dispersal routes, restricting their movement and compromising their ability to colonise new territories. Opportunities for tigers from adjacent communities to meet and replenish the gene pool are therefore increasingly difficult to facilitate. As with earlier demographic disruptions, leading to the identification of taxonomic departures, this situation depletes isolated communities of their diversity, increasing the risk of future extinction episodes. This becomes ever more likely as poaching crises emerge and indeed, during an era of increasing climate change, where conditions are likely to exert a fresh set of pressures and challenges on the big cat.

Returning to the ‘Science Advances’ paper, lead author Andreas Wilting claims that previous efforts to curtail taxonomic inflation in the case of tigers have largely failed to gain traction due to a lack of evidence in support of its reversal. As we know, research can move slowly, one small advance at a time. Even where research finally emerges to suggest a rethink in policy, this process can also be pedestrian. Wilting, however, believes that the evidence now exists and that it translates into a strong message for the conservation community to act now to better organise tiger conservation globally. Other critics support this stance and question the trend towards identifying species in terms of their ancestry, an issue largely ignored in this particular post, rather than through their current, physical traits. After all, following such a long period of contraction and repopulation it has become impossible today to understand the linkages between lineage and behaviour, making any discussion largely academic to the needs of the modern tiger. Still others emphasise the influence of technology that has enabled scientists to study wildlife at a molecular level, identifying minute differences in their morphology before translating this information into new taxonomic understandings. Wilting continues by arguing that this process provides “so many species concepts” that you could make a legitimate case to “distinguish each population separately”. Legitimate, perhaps but helpful, definitely not.

Panthera Tigris - How Helpful is taxonomic subdivision?
Panthera Tigris – How helpful is taxonomic subdivision?

Why, then, is it so important to tiger conservation to abandon such restrictive categorisations? Well, the argument proceeds, a strict taxonomic approach brings with it a proliferation of management units, areas in which only prescribed genetical material can be added to the existing gene bank. As we have seen earlier, the current dearth of diversity within mainland Asian tiger populations at least, negates such a need in practice and, with many isolated communities rapidly nearing a bottleneck, only two real options remain. One is to reconnect currently isolated populations through a series of corridors to facilitate greater dispersal between remote, insular communities. This is the focus of my next post and, as we will see, this is particularly difficult to achieve in areas containing large human populations and their associated development and infrastructural support. Secondly, and perhaps more realistic over the shorter term, is the artificial injection of genetic material to challenge current uniformity. This may be based on relocation of tigers between communities and, indeed, within his recent announcement of a 30 percent increase in tigers in India over the past four years, the minister in charge of environment and forests proudly stated that India may soon be in the position to donate surplus tigers to other range states to help repopulate and regenerate their own declining tiger communities. To enable this to happen in the future, a relaxation of taxonomic diktat is vital. Finally, the artificial introduction of diversity may include elements of artificial insemination from captive bred sources and even, in the event that reintroduction methods are developed that enable captive-bred tigers to survive in the wild, the prospect of the repopulation of ranges following extinction episodes may become an increasingly attractive and indeed feasible option.

It will be interesting here to follow the success, or otherwise, of the ‘Save China’s Tigers’ initiative, in which two zoo bred tiger cubs were initially transported to South Africa in October, 2003 to prepare them for ultimate release into the wild in China.

a recently introduced china tiger with it's Blesbuck prey
Save China’s tigers – Tiger training in South Africa represents a radical departure from convention.

The brainchild of London-based Chinese businesswoman Li Quan, two tiger cubs were initially released into the veldt landscape and, following further introductions and subsequent births, the stock of tigers currently stands at eighteen individuals. Contained within a fenced reserve to prevent ingress into the wild, these tigers learn to hunt and the project is described as a ‘rewilding’ programme. The ultimate aim of the exercise is to return the tigers to China following the necessary rehabilitation of appropriate habitat, enabling the repopulation of de-tigered environments. The project is of particular interest as it focuses on the South China tiger, one of the subspecies that is presumed to be functionally extinct in the wild and, indeed the stem species from which the other subspecies are thought to have radiated. It has proved to be a controversial programme to date but, as critics of the existing restrictive approach argue, the whole issue of tiger conservation remains contentious and disputed. But, as we have seen, in order to safeguard the tiger’s long-term persistence in the forests of Asia, tough decisions need to be made and these may be most effective if past regimes are investigated and adapted to reflect modern realities.

The genetic purity versus pollution debate must therefore be debated more fully, as the present focus on subspecies may be leading us down a path of no return – irreversible extinction. Perhaps it is time to discuss ways of more effectively replenishing the gene pools of endangered tiger populations and, whilst remaining vigilant that we don’t compromise diversity, allowing genetic refreshment from outside to boost the resilience of the species to persist in the future. The question is clear. How do we want to see our tigers in the future: in captivity or in the wild? While the answer for most of us veers unerringly towards the latter, how we achieve this is far less clear cut. What is evident, however, is that moving forward we may be forced to intervene more fully in our conservation endeavours and become a little less idealistic in the way we respond to the spectre of extinction. The clock is ticking.

Lies, damned lies and statistics: getting to grips with the all-India tiger estimation controversy

Imagine running a business in which you are totally unaware how much stock you have. This is the situation that faces those that manage India’s national tiger estate. Tigers, as a species, are notoriously difficult to see. They are solitary, secretive animals that wherever possible seek to avoid contact with humans. On my first visit to a tiger reserve I became only too aware of this fact as I returned from successive drives empty handed. When I say empty handed I don’t necessarily mean that my trip was a disaster as I was lucky enough to witness a range of species populating the dry forests of Central India, each a key source of tiger prey but, unfortunately the big prize eluded me. On returning to the lodge I spoke in depth to my hosts who assured me that the largest of the big cats was active across the route I’d been driven and, on day two, I was rewarded not with an actual tiger sighting but with a close-up view of a very large, very real pug-mark that had been left upon the dusty road we were travelling.

Sign at the exit of Bandhagarvh National Park " Perhaps you may not have seen me, but please don't be disappointed. I have seen you."
Although difficult to see, tigers are nevertheless present.

Its very size hinted at the scale and power of the animal that had left it and, just around the next corner a sign post comforted me over my lack of an actual sighting. Here, a cartoon tiger stared down at me, a speech balloon coming from its mouth, informing me that although ‘you may not have seen me, please don’t feel disappointed. I have seen you’.

When I arrived back at base that evening and was flicking through a local journal in the small library I read that, on average, only one trip in 14 actually resulted in a tiger sighting. Clearly, these are not the easiest animals to spot. So, consequently, they are also very difficult to count. The results of the latest All- India Tiger Estimation were announced in January of this year and received enthusiastically by those willing the tiger to rebound from the threat of extinction. As Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar revealed the long anticipated result of the 2014 estimation exercise, the response to his words were mixed. Euphoria in some quarters was balanced by incredulity in others. While tiger lovers celebrated the meteoric rise in numbers, experts were more cautious and, as the days passed, their concern grew as to the validity of what they had been told. New analyses soon appeared in the media to challenge the government’s figures and there emerged a view that the new Modi government may have been merely fuelling the feel good factor that had heralded their landslide victory of 2014. If not, then the plight of the tiger had improved to such an extent that the problem was now less one of will the tiger survive than one of how many more can our tiger reserves accommodate before saturation?

Well, the history of the tiger count has been long and controversial. It was following such estimates in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Project Tiger was conceived, in recognition of an alarming drop in tiger numbers that had bypassed most people. Suddenly, a creature that had always been considered ubiquitous in Indian forests was now becoming increasingly rare and, it was considered, that without remedial action, the tiger would soon enter the shadowlands of extinction. Enter the most powerful person in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who, with the backing of global conservation NGOs, considered ways to better protect the Indian tiger. The result of this collaboration was the enactment of legislation (the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) and the establishment of nine tiger reserves as a safe haven for the country’s remaining tigers, estimated to have fallen to around 2,400 individuals. The reserves were largely carved out of existing protected areas and, within their boundaries, management was to focus on the protection of the largest of the big cats. Over the years, the national estate of tiger reserves has risen exponentially and, today, they number 48 individual sites. While arguments persist as to the success of this approach, the tiger has nevertheless evaded extinction although its numbers have oscillated due to a range of external pressures. Left undisturbed, tigers are known to be a resilient and fecund species yet habitat fragmentation has proved to be an ongoing problem as has the depletion of prey species, much of which has been for the consumption of impoverished local communities.

Then, in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the first signs of a poaching epidemic materialised and once again, Indian tiger numbers declined. Since then, every effort to count them have added to the argument as to the best way to estimate their numbers. The pug-mark method emerged as the early favourite, where plaster casts of the footprints of tigers were collected, analysed and individual incidences recorded.

tiger pugmark in the dust
Initial efforts to count tigers utilised the now discredited pug mark count approach.

While the figures generated emphasised the continuing success of Project Tiger, It soon emerged that there was a political angle to the registration of numbers as the more tigers a reserve (and indeed the state within which the reserves were located) claimed, the more money provided by the government for their upkeep. Inflation of figures was widespread and experts were reduced to a guessing game of how many tigers remained. All anyone seemed to agree on was that the actual number inhabiting the reserves was far less than the official fiction suggested.

Arguments persisted into the 21st century, with critics of the status quo pointing to the availability of new technologies and statistical procedures available to wildlife managers in more accurately predicting tiger population numbers. It largely remained a talking shop, however, as by 2004 tiger numbers were reported to have exceeded 4,000 individuals. Few believed such hype yet the government clung on to the outmoded pug-mark approach, refusing to accept criticisms as to its efficacy. Then, in 2005 the Wildlife Institute of India revealed that, contrary to census returns suggesting a healthy population of tigers inhabiting the popular Sariska Reserve in Rajasthan, there was in fact no evidence at all to support the presence of any tigers whatsoever. The resulting crisis, and its recriminations, proved to be a landmark event in the management of tigers in India. The extirpation of the big cats from such a high profile reserve prompted a review of the whole national approach towards tiger conservation, including the ways in which tiger numbers were calculated. Finally, the controversial pug-mark count mechanism was being dismantled in favour of a more statistically robust index-calibration approach, utilising technological advances to more accurately predict the extent of, and trends in, the population of wild tigers in India.

Surely this advance was widely applauded across the conservation lobby? Not necessarily, as it soon emerged that while critics welcomed the departure from an outmoded and discredited counting technique, they feared that it had been replaced by an equally problematic approach. Prominent tiger expert K. Ullas Karanth argued that the new procedure adopted by government was based on nothing more than an obsolete statistical technique that had fallen from favour as long ago as the 1930s. Whatever the reality of the situation, this method has now been utilised within the last three All-India tiger estimation exercises in 2006, 2010 and 2014.

As the first results emerged from the 2006 estimation, it became evident that the extent of tiger declines across India had become critical. Based on a median of an upper estimate of 1,657 and a lower figure if 1,165 tigers, the most likely population size was stated as 1,411. The news was greeted with widespread despondency as the world’s media picked up the story, although the figure generated at least appeared to be more realistic than those that had been provided from previous counts. The Indian establishment, stung by what they viewed as a censure of their (mis)management of the national tiger estate, sought to engage more closely with experts outside their familiar networks in order to tackle the shortcomings that had contributed to such a decline. By 2010, the next estimation period, their efforts had seemingly been justified as a headline figure of 1,706 tigers was communicated to an expectant media. This, we were told, represented an increase of 16 percent. Tigers were clearly rebounding, the message suggested, India was finally back on track. But was it? Just as the 2006 estimation was based on a median figure, so too was its 2010 version. This time, the lower limit was 1,571 against a ceiling figure of 1,875.

Following a brief period of reflection, and not a little back patting from those in power, critics pored over the data and came up with a more measured reading of the trends. What if, they said, you consider the figures from a slightly different perspective, say the maximum number from 2006 against the minimum range for 2010? Say, for the sake of argument that these were indeed nearest to reality and what you find is the possible loss of a further 86 tigers in just four years. Hardly something to celebrate. Add to this the fact that the 2010 count included areas not employed in the 2006 estimation, a prime example being the Sunderbans which yielded a further 70 estimated individuals and, far from rebounding, tigers may well be continuing to decline. An even closer look into the data reveals that the reported rise in tiger numbers had occurred during a period of accelerating habitat loss and, taking the published figures at face value means that the 16 percent rise in tiger numbers was achieved across a national estate that had lost 22 percent of its territory. This implies that tiger densities in India had increased by a staggering, and less than realistic, 49 percent in just four years.

Graph showing a constant rise since 2006 using the new counting approach
The headline data for the 2014 tiger count was eagerly picked up by the world media.

Let us now move on another four years and consider a little more closely the latest All-India tiger estimation results released in January 2015. The official estimate was revealed to be 2,226 (representing a 30 percent increase in numbers) based upon a minimum limit of 1,945 and an upper range of 2,491. Whilst the previous assessment was restricted to tigers inhabiting protected areas, the 2014 version sought to expand its reach to include all available tiger habitat across the country. The value of this type of exercise, however, is its longevity in providing data over an elongated period that can be compared over time to identify key trends and patterns emerging and to use this management information to better guide policy and action. Constantly changing its terms of reference negates much of its value and, in an expensive process like the tiger estimation, this represents a lost opportunity in the fight to save the tiger.

If the 2010 count had been greeted with a certain amount of derision and disbelief, this time the response was far more incredulous and antagonistic. Karanth referred to the estimation as ‘ridiculous and unscientific’ and, with colleagues set out to discredit the validity of the index-calibration approach in a paper published in ‘Methods in Ecology and Evolution’. Now comes the difficult part. The arguments put forward in this debate are based on complex mathematical and statistical applications, issues of which I have little grasp of. For reasons of necessity, as well as choice, I have therefore attempted to simplify the argument to a basic description of the index-calibration method and the ways in which the protagonists deviate in terms of assessing its value and accuracy. As a technique, index-calibration relies on the measurement of animals over a relatively small territory using a range of methods including camera trap technology.

night vision shot of a tiger face on.
Caught in a trap. Camera trap technology adopted as part of the all-India tiger estimation toolbox

The accumulated data from this stage is then related to more easily available indicators, such as animal track counts by means of calibration. The resulting index can then be used in order to extrapolate numbers over an extended area, in this case the whole of India.

Returning to the study, it goes on to argue that the adopted approach represents a poor way in which to predict actual tiger numbers, and that more advanced, applicable methodologies exist. The subtext here is important as, it appears to me, the crux of the argument is that the Indian government, by clinging on to control every facet of tiger conservation, are missing a key opportunity by their refusal to engage with the wealth of experience and expertise that exists within the non-government sectors. Indeed, a cursory reading reveals the fact that the authors of the article are not even disputing the fact that tiger communities may have rebounded in India, but rather the extent of the rise. Moreover, it points out that management information is only of use if it is accurate and trustworthy. Rather than engaging in a reasoned discussion to justify their stance, the government however have embarked instead on a crusade to force their detractors to retract their criticisms of the generated numbers. This has created an impasse in which both sides are firmly entrenched, compromising the opportunity for informed debate in order to agree on the best way ahead. Here, the prospect of wider partnerships in the immediate future appear at best unlikely.

An image of a tiger with digital mesh superimposed and a closeup showing the stripe pattern
tiger stripes are unique and software now exists to distinguish between individuals

As Lisa Newton noted in her 2005 book on ‘Business ethics and the natural environment’ the resulting lack of meaningful engagement tends to result in the “polarisation of the people best qualified to solve environmental problems” of this kind. Unless such a impasse can be bridged and as long as the protagonists rely, in the immortal words of Mark Twain, on ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ to justify their divergent positions, business as usual will ensure that, in a little under four years, we will again be revisiting the same arguments. Nothing will have changed.

Wanted, Dead or Alive: Reflections on the economic justifications surrounding China’s tiger farms

What is the best way to protect tigers in the wild? This is a question that continues to challenge conservationists and wildlife managers alike and, as yet, there appears to be little consensus as to what the answer might be. What is clear, however, is that there remains a downward trajectory in tiger numbers across their geographical range and that without a concerted effort on the part of all actors involved in managing these big cats, they may soon be consigned to the status of extinction.

»  Tiger Fur Texture Closeup of animal fur  »  Uploaded by sh0dan (|) on Aug 2, 2005     Usage Royalty free
Tiger skins reach high prices on the black market

While the conventional conservation community cling on valiantly to their long-held orthodoxies, pressure is increasingly being exerted on them by advocates of market-based solutions seeking to change the terrain of wildlife protection moving forward. Here, the wisdom of blanket trade bans is being questioned and directions such as wildlife farming promoted as a viable alternative. This is undoubtedly a controversial approach, exemplified by the existence of a network of privately-operated, state-sanctioned tiger farms across China. These industrial breeding facilities were introduced initially to provide a sustainable source of tiger-based products to service the lucrative market in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). As these farms began to expand their coverage, however, it became evident that trade in tigers for TCM purposes was exerting significant pressure on the species, accelerating its depletion in the wild.

As a result, the global community, under the authority of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), began to apply pressure on China to enact a domestic ban to outlaw all trade in tiger parts and derivatives, including products derived from its captive stocks. Concerned by the threat of potential sanctions, the Chinese government submitted to pressure in 1993, introducing appropriate legislation to curb the trade. Suddenly, overnight the value of the tiger farms plummeted, prompting some owners to threaten to close down their enterprises with immediate effect, leaving their tigers to starve to death. Logically, it could have been envisaged at this juncture that the Chinese authorities would need to intervene and begin a phased closing down of the farms, but this never happened. Instead, there has been a massive expansion during the intervening period, exacerbating concerns that trade remains widespread, albeit operating beneath the official radar. The Chinese have continually denied any wrongdoing in this regard and have instead engineered new justifications for the farms’ existence. Rather than the pursuit of trade, they argue, these facilities are being operated for the purposes of tourism, education, conservation and research.

Today, the total population of tigers in captivity in these farms is estimated to be between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals. The costs of feeding a single tiger per year is thought to be around US$ 2,000, adding up to an annual, conservative estimate of between US$ 10-12 million just to keep them alive. Add to this the costs of staffing and the maintenance of facilities and it is difficult to make the sums fit with the argument that such farms remain profitable enterprises without the trade option being exercised. A further implausibility here surrounds the fact that there are currently over 200 such farms in existence and only a handful of these are large enough to attract significant tourism interest.

By John Ingham, Environment Editor of Expree.co.uk
By John Ingham, Environment Editor of Expree.co.uk

In light of these concerns, there have been a series of undercover ‘sting’ operations undertaken by the world’s media, providing compelling evidence that trade continues to thrive despite the existence of the legal ban. So, what has changed in the interim? Why does the global community appear to be less inclined to pressure China to comply with its international responsibilities? The answer to this is perhaps obvious – money. Since 1993, few people on the planet can have failed to notice the elevation of China as one of the world’s economic powerhouses. As the prominent Indian politician from the independence era, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar observed so many years ago that “where ethics and economics come into conflict, victory is always with economics”. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the world’s governments show less appetite for any fresh conflict with China, particularly if this is associated with what they inevitably view to be a minor issue when weighed against the realities of international commerce.

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Small pens house tigers. Image from Environmental Investigation Agency

This inactivity, however, has undoubtedly contributed to a growing confidence on the part of tiger farming advocates to not only continue to justify their existence but also to raise the issue of a unilateral lifting of the trade ban. CITES has arguably been hamstrung as a result, spending more of its time trying to retain the status quo rather than seeking to effect any change in the Chinese stance on tiger farming. What has emerged from this continuing stalemate has been a complete absence of common ground in which meaningful dialogue can take place, an issue that manifested itself most visibly (and audibly) at the International Tiger Symposium held in Kathmandu in 2007. Here, among participants from twelve tiger range countries, the Chinese delegation included representatives from the tiger breeding facilities, a move seen by the NGOs particularly as being inflammatory to the aims of the event which focused on the promotion collaboration and cooperation between range countries in the protection of tigers. The atmosphere engendered by the presence of these breeding centre owners and managers meant that the agenda was dominated instead by the tiger farming controversy. The Chinese delegation reacted to what they viewed as aggressive questioning by the western contingent and the event descended into chaos as physical scuffles broke out among the audience. This conflict presaged a period in which Chinese pressure to lift the trade ban became ubiquitous not only in CITES discussions but increasingly in the world’s media.

The Chinese government, in an attempt to garner support for a resumption of trade from its breeding centres, invited a select group of ‘experts’ from around the world to visit its tiger farms in 2010. It was the composition of this expert group, however, that raised the most eyebrows, particularly after the raft of enthusiastic responses that subsequently emerged from the invitees. Far from being drawn from the tiger conservation movement, the assembled party was dominated by economists and what emerged from the visit was essentially an economic justification for the potential role of tiger farms in challenging an increasingly pervasive illegal trade network. It is perhaps at this juncture that a brief summary of these arguments is required.

Advocates of tiger farming base their beliefs firmly within the camp of free market economics, arguing that presently the wild tiger is assigned no discernible value and, as such, it is proving difficult to protect. Utilising a simplistic supply-side stance, the main tenet of their argument surrounds entry into the existing black market of a legal source of captive-bred products to reduce the unit price of similar products illegally procured from the wild. Saturating the market with legal, certified tiger products, the argument proceeds, will make poaching less profitable and increase the risk versus reward ratio. Additionally, providing a limited number of authorised centres with a license to trade will enable a robust certification scheme to be developed, thereby reducing the dependence of TCM users on products that are difficult to verify as authentic.

Deviating briefly from the world of economics into the territory of systems theory these tiger farming claims can perhaps be elaborated on further.

Tiger Breeding cages Guilin Tiger Bear Farm Jul 07 (c) Belinda Wright WPSI-ITC #258 hi-res.jpg
Tiger Breeding cages Guilin Tiger Bear Farm Jul 07 (c) Belinda Wright WPSI-ITC 

As in all complex systems, there tend to be a series of unforeseen and indeed unintended consequences associated with any given course of action, hence the need for adaptive, responsive forms of intervention. Systems analysts tend to refer to these as either constituting positive or negative feedback loops. The crux of the argument in relation to tiger farms emphasises, as we have seen, the entry into a currently illegal marketplace of a series of legally controlled alternatives. Those who advocate such an approach argue that this course of action will dampen the effects of illegal trade and create a negative feedback loop in which poaching pressures can be better controlled. From a conservative economic perspective, this approach is viewed as being innovative and, as the orthodox conservation approach is deemed to have failed in its overall remit to protect tigers against illegal trade, a route worth pursuing. But it is also a route that has attracted significant resistance and opposition.

Let us now take the opportunity to counter the claims of tiger farm advocates with a brief summary of the views held by their opponents. Whilst the market-based lobby concentrate on a supply-driven approach, its detractors favour a demand-reduction focus to tackle the existence of illegal trade. From this viewpoint, far from reducing demand for illegal products, any resumption of legal trade will have the opposite outcome. It will increase the market, bringing new TCM users into play, particularly those that have been deterred due to the illegalities involved. This can be described as the ‘stigma effect’ whereby demand is kept at low levels while prohibition remains in place, but once any form of legalisation is undertaken, latent demand is turned into actual demand.

tiger group in Chinese farm.
Chinese tiger farms are based on speed breeding techniques. Image from http://animaluntamed.yuku.com/topic/357/Excellent-Wild-Photography#.VYFHClzBzRY

Moreover, in response to the claim that a legal market will allow a robust certification process to be developed, critics point to an opposite effect in which the newly created market will instead provide significant opportunities for the laundering of illegal parts. It is also argued that the economics just don’t add up. If it costs at least US$ 2,000 per annum to accommodate an individual captive tiger and only a few dollars to kill one, then poaching will remain a profitable occupation as the availability of farmed tigers cannot reduce the unit cost of a poached tiger sufficiently to deter criminal syndicates from engaging in the practice. One caveat here is that this particular element of the debate ignores the wider costs associated with either scenario. The pro-lobby point towards the costs of trafficking logistics alongside those of developing networks of corrupt officials to facilitate the movement of contraband across international boundaries. As suggested earlier, the anti-farming movement add the costs of personnel and the upkeep of facilities in addition to the anticipated expense of designing and operating any effective certification programme. Finally, though not exhaustively, the assumption that farmed tigers are a perfect substitute for wilds ones is far from pervasive. The very nature of tiger-based products emphasises the power of the largest of the big cats and, to some extent, consuming them entails some form of transfer of that power to the recipient of the medicine or potion. Domestication may be seen as a taming of such power and, as such, the farmed product may be viewed as inferior, with a significant premium paid for the real thing.

To take this one step further, there is also value in rarity and perhaps most worrying for the tiger in the wild is the fact that the more depleted their numbers become, the more desirable, and therefore valuable, their parts may prove to be. To return briefly to the application of systems theory, it can be argued that the anti-tiger farm lobby view any resumption of trade utilising captive species as creating a potential positive feedback loop, amplifying rather than dampening the initial effects that are being challenged. In this case, the argument proceeds, rather than seeing a reduction in poaching the most likely outcome will be an increased depletion of tigers from the wild.

End tiger trade - campaign poster
End tiger trade campaign poster

For these reasons, the future of tiger farming is uncertain, it is also heavily contested and for this reason it is essential that trade should not be reopened unless the ultimate effects of it can be assured. The problem facing both combatants in the debate is that its effects cannot be empirically tested and, rather than risk a fresh explosion as a result of increased demand, the World Bank have adjudicated that the precautionary principle should be invoked and that, in their estimation, the status quo should be retained. This does not necessarily reflect a situation in which the World Bank has sided with the anti-farming lobby but rather that they have evaluated the risks of such an approach and found that, at the present moment, the best way to protect tigers in the wild is to manage them in the wild. Undoubtedly the debate will rage on and as long as the issues remain so polarised, any chance of reconciliation is unlikely at best.