Are Tigers About to Become Extinct?

In India tigers are in trouble again—and it may be the last time. Wildlife conservation experts now believe that India has so few tigers left, and they have so little room to maneuver, that populations have no recourse but to dwindle to extinction. Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of the Panthera Foundation, has championed tigers, jaguars, leopards and pumas and worked to preserve their habitats, from South America to Southeast Asia. Formerly the executive director of science of exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, Rabinowitz wrote "Life in the Valley of Death," about his recent experience negotiating with the Burmese dictator to create the largest tiger reserve in the world, in the Hukaung Valley in Burma. NEWSWEEK's Lily Huang spoke with Rabinowitz by phone about the work of conservation and strategies for the future. Excerpts:

How long have tigers been endangered?
Alan Rabinowitz:
That's a very good question. Part of the problem is that nobody has been actually counting tigers, following tigers. It's only been a little over 10 years that people have come up with a technology using camera trapping in a certain grid formation to get accurate density estimations of tigers. Until that time we didn't really know how to count tigers. People did things like estimating tiger numbers by their tracks—their pug marks—but the main place to do that was the tiger reserves in India. And that, in fact, contributed to years [of inaccuracy], whether it was by the technique being bad or because of the people doing it just not reporting it accurately because their promotions were based on tiger numbers going up. For years and years India reported huge successes in tiger populations and tiger numbers when in fact anybody who was on the ground actually looking at tigers—me included—realized that tigers were declining. Drastically.

When I started in '93 or so in Indochina—doing tiger surveys throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam-tigers were in desperate shape. Desperate. I can't pinpoint the year. What we know is that by the turn of the 20th century—about 1900 or so—there were thought to be as many as 100,000 tigers still roaming throughout the clear range. When the world woke up to the tiger crisis—because nobody was even paying attention or questioning it—in the early to mid-1990s, we were dealing with estimates (which I thought were overestimates at the time) of 5,000 to 7,000 left throughout their entire range. Now we know it's probably half that, at most. People like myself and Ullas Karanth and some old-time cat biologists who were working within tiger ranges knew that tigers had been on a steady decline—continuously—for our entire careers.

Why have conservation efforts since then not been more successful against the crisis?
The traditional paradigm in wildlife conservation—which was valid—started in the '60s and '70s, when large swaths of habitat started being lost, throughout the tropics and other regions. People started waking up to the threat on wildlife species and especially the large cats. The main emphasis was on locking up habitat. And locking up habitat worked well for a lot of species, except when those individual species were targeted for economic reasons. Then it didn't matter if you locked up habitat. Now, we didn't realize that for a long time—we didn't realize what kind of pressure was being put on tigers specifically because of things like livestock conflicts and the use of tiger parts and the very high price for traditional Asian medicines. Everybody says traditional Chinese medicine, but it's actually used in many Asian medicines.

And these causes were not apparent?
We didn't know because there really was hardly anybody looking at tigers specifically. Even in my early graduate days, in the late '70s and early '80s, I would do a radio telemetry study on something like jaguars or I would follow tigers, and I would know what would be happening in my particular little area. I would set aside a park, it would be a success, and we'd feel, "OK, if this was repeated a hundred times or a thousand times by others of like minds, you'll save this species." Well, that never really happened.

So conservation efforts were undermined by unforeseen causes?
What people don't realize is that conservation is actually a very new word. In the '80s eco-tourism wasn't even a term. Conservation biology wasn't a science. There were no courses in school. You studied zoology. I went out and did traditional wildlife, which is capturing an animal, radio-collaring it, following it in the jungle. My job early on for the Bronx Zoo was to just do scientific research, not conservation. When I started realizing, first with jaguars, that these animals were going down, I actually had to fight to do something in conservation, because that wasn't really a field. The assumption was that there was enough [wildlife] out there, and it wasn't a crisis yet. By the time we realized—as usually happens with crises—it's already way far gone. And then you're just doing crisis management. The tiger was very far gone.

What particular challenges do tigers face that make their situation so difficult?
Habitat loss has been a huge factor. The tiger's range is in Asia, an area with the world's oldest cultures, the world's most populated countries, for many decades the world's most tumultuous regions engulfed in war. The tiger had to try to sustain itself throughout all of this, and consequently it lost huge areas of habitat, and more importantly, what people weren't looking at, what was happening to the tigers' food. Even when tigers weren't being hunted or were being protected, nobody was protecting their food source, which was a major food source for the local people also: wild pigs, samba deer, that kind of thing.

When you lock down a habitat, aren't you preserving the entire ecosystem?
Yes, you try. The demand by local people for a protein source is so great that, while technically the law says the people can't hunt, most of the countries were looking the other way. You'd say, "Look, the local people need that. That's just local people living with the forest." But it wasn't! It was the local people decimating what was left of the wildlife. They were using it for their protein source because that was considered free, versus their pigs, chickens and cattle, which brought money at the market. We were losing prey and nobody was watching that, both inside and outside protected areas. Even if a protected area was good, the amount of protected area throughout Asia is minuscule compared to what animals like a tiger really need. If you really wanted to save the species—and this is true of all the big animals—you really have to find conservation strategies that save them outside protected areas as well as inside. Protected areas could be their refuge, but you needed to consider the human landscape dimension as well. This is something that only recently has started happening, and it's what I do most of my work on: to create genetic corridors for these big cats through the human landscape to avoid extinction, to avoid India.

Is the crisis in India beyond salvaging?
India is a prime example of conservation gone wrong. The outward reason is that there's just tons of poaching. Indian parks are probably the best-protected areas in all of Asia. I've never been to any other place in Asia where the guards are so well-trained, where they're armed to the teeth, where they're allowed to shoot to kill the poachers. And yet they're losing! Poaching by local people is nothing new. But the reason it's been so devastating in India is because the places that were protected were basically postage stamps. They're all very, very small protected areas—150 square kilometers, 260, 600—all tiny areas for tigers. The largest tiger reserve in the world, which I set up in the Hukaung Valley in Burma, is 8,500 square miles—over 23,000 square kilometers. It's nearly the size of the state of Vermont. Flowing over into India, it's close to 10,000 square miles. It's huge. But it's got very few tigers left; we've got to bring them back now. If we bring them back we're going to have areas where the tigers can roam.

You bring tigers back into the Indian parks, they can go extinct very quickly, as just happened in Sariska and is happening in many of the Indian tiger reserves. But even if you have a very good, stable park with lots of tigers, like Nagara Hole, which has some of the best tiger densities in the world, the fact is it's tiny. The tigers don't have anyplace to go. Our plan is to expand outward and actually try to hook up protected areas so that tigers don't go into a sink.

What is your guiding philosophy for building reserves?
When you realize that you're never going to get away from poaching, from illegal activities, from human-land conflict and human-wildlife conflict, the key is trying to protect large enough areas for the wildlife so that even with the worst that could happen, that will still be balanced out. You try to get as large a protected area as possible. That varies hugely from country to country, what you can do politically and in terms of available land. That's fine. You get what you can for a viable breeding population of tigers—[meaning] they have adequate food, adequate space. That's got to be their refuge where nothing can interfere with them. But the way to guarantee against extinction of that population, and to make that small area both sustainable and ecologically much larger than it appears to be, is to try to connect it [to another reserve], at least genetically.

You've persuaded many environmentally unconscious governments to protect their big cats. What's special about cats? Has India shown unusual ambivalence toward tigers, leading them to the present crisis?
I haven't found any country in the world who says they want to lose all their tigers. One of the reasons I work on big cats is not because I love big cats over something else. In fact, I'm allergic to cats. [But] if we save the ranges for big cats, we save huge amounts of biodiversity, huge natural ecosystems. Most importantly, I can get to see kings, presidents, prime ministers, dictators when I say "All your tigers are going to be gone unless you talk to me." India's not ambivalent. If they actually didn't care, it would never have gotten to be such a controversy. It became a political issue with the prime minister, who then had to allocate [a] large figure for saving tigers. I doubt it's going to work, because I think India has just gone a bit too far. But if it were any species, you wouldn't even have gotten to the door of the minister's office.