Asian sites' protection urged to save tigers

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Protecting just 42 sites across Asia, ranging from temperate forests to tropical grasslands, could be key to the survival of one of the world's most iconic, and feared, wild cats - the tiger.

That radical proposal, outlined in a paper published online Tuesday evening in the journal PLoS Biology, represents a scaling-back of ambition and what one of the paper's authors calls "ruthless priority setting."

"It's forcing hard decisions," said Simon Stuart, co-author of the paper, who chairs the species survival commission at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. For animals that are worth considerable sums, he added, "there's no way you can protect them across an entire landscape, because the costs are too high."

John Robinson, executive vice president for conservation and science at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said researchers experienced "a real shock" when they determined what was needed to keep the species going. The majority of about 1,000 breeding females are found in India, Russia and Indonesia. None remain in Cambodia, China, North Korea and Vietnam.

"Unless we protect those core populations, within a few short years we could lose tigers altogether," said Robinson, another of the paper's co-authors.

Over the past couple of decades, environmentalists have focused on preserving large, ecologically rich landscapes to ensure that a wide range of plant and animal species can thrive over the long term. But for a number of highly imperiled species, scientists now say, governments and nonprofit organizations must target their efforts more narrowly if they want to ensure that these populations remain viable.

In the case of the tiger, three factors - habitat loss, the overhunting of its prey and poaching - have caused its numbers to drop from more than 10,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 3,500 today. Tiger parts are so prized in Eastern medicine that a dead one can sell for $1,500 to $3,500 before its eyes are sold as a cure for epilepsy and malaria, its penis is converted into a soup for virility, and its bones are ground into powder to treat ulcers, rheumatism and typhoid, according to Wildlife Conservation Society species program director Elizabeth Bennett.

Researchers have determined that tigers occupy less than 7 percent of their historic range. In addition to poaching, Asia's rapid economic development - including road and dam construction - has eroded tiger habitat.

Robinson and others advocate a two-step process that focuses on monitoring and protecting tigers in the 42 source sites and a longer-term effort to preserve the large landscapes tigers need to hunt and roam.

Like other large carnivores, tigers need ample space and prey to thrive: Each animal might eat 50 deer a year. Depending on the location, there are one to 20 tigers in a given area of 39 square miles. They have relatively high reproductive rates, producing as many as four cubs every couple of years, so their populations can rebound if sheltered.

"All you need to do is provide tigers with space and prey and protection," said Barney Long, tiger program manager for the World Wildlife Fund. "That really should not be that hard to provide for the world's favorite animal."


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