Tigers have long been a symbol of grace, power and majesty. Because of this their body parts are highly prized in Asian countries. A new study by environmentalists says this illegal trade in tiger parts and a loss of habitat are driving the tiger to near extinction. VOA's Craig Fitzpatrick attended a presentation at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to hear what scientists had to say about the quickly disappearing tiger.
The tigers at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. will never go hungry or be poached for their body parts. But the same cannot be said for wild tigers that populate the forests of India and Southeast Asia.
John Seidensticker, senior scientist at the National Zoo, says we need tigers. "A world without tigers is a world without hope. It's like a clear night sky without stars."
Scientists from various environmental organizations gathered recently at the zoo to present their findings from a decade-long study. They warn that tiger populations worldwide are declining faster than had been predicted.
Jeff Trandahl is executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He says the tiger habitat range once extended from the Korean Peninsula to the Black Sea. Trandahl says 90 percent of that range has been lost in the last 150 years. "Tiger habitat range is down to only seven percent of its original range. We're losing habitat every day. We're losing animals in the wild. So we're at a critical point in terms of responding to the crisis."
The crisis was created by the expanding human populations in India and Southeast Asia. People encroach on tiger habitat, kill tigers illegally, and hunt the game that tigers prey upon.
Mr. Seidensticker says the forests are bare. "Many of the forests of Asia are devoid of prey. Tigers need large deer, wild pigs. In India they eat gaur, which is a large wild cattle. And it's loss of prey that's actually one of the biggest things that threatens tigers."
Tigers are poached for their valuable parts. Tiger skin is in great demand from an increasingly affluent Asian population. Tiger bone has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years. The poaching goes on despite laws in most countries making trafficking in tiger parts illegal. India has even established parks for the protection of tigers, but the trend continues.
Mr. Trandahl explains why poaching has become a means to earn money. "The hard part is you have very poor populations surrounding many of those parks. And suddenly poaching a tiger is very attractive because you can earn more by poaching one animal than you could by working a full year."
Trandahl says there is hope, thanks to more private and public funding. "The study gives us both good news and bad news. The good news is, we looked at our investments over the last 11 years, and we find that those targeted populations that we've been investing in are not only stable but some are actually expanding."
Some of those stable and expanding populations can be found in the Russian Far East and on the border between Nepal and India. Scientists say with proper funding, education and government protection more areas can become habitable and help secure the long-term survival of these majestic animals.