Asian sites' protection urged to save tigers

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; A4

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."

This sort of focused conservation strategy has been successful with the African rhinoceros, whose numbers plummeted in the 1980s because of poaching. By protecting key clusters of black rhinos, African officials were able to help bring the species back from 2,300 in 1993 to 4,240 in 2008. Still, it's a fraction of the 65,000 that roamed the continent in 1970.

Stuart said the same approach could be applied to a variety of species in Asia, including the wild water buffalo, several types of primates and the gaur, the world's largest cattle.

At the same time, prominent researchers said conservationists cannot afford to shortchange large and regional protections at the expense of focusing on targeted species.

"Generally speaking, the current pressure on biodiversity necessarily leads to trying to do conservation on a bigger scale, essentially a landscape scale, a regional scale and even subcontinental scale," said Thomas E. Lovejoy, a George Mason University professor. "Clearly we need to think and act bigger than ever before."

But in the case of tigers, Robinson said, it is necessary to look at "last resort" options. This is the year of the tiger in the Chinese calendar, and advocacy groups are seeking to capitalize on that to muster new financial and political commitments on the animal's behalf. In November, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will host a tiger preservation summit that will build on the Global Tiger Initiative that World Bank President Robert Zoellick launched in 2008.

According to the paper, the world spends $47 million on tiger conservation, the bulk of which comes from range states such as India and $10 million of which comes from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. That leaves a $35 million shortfall in funds needed to protect critical tiger breeding populations.

"We should be able to find $35 million a year to save tigers," Robinson said. "It's [Yankees third baseman] Alex Rodriguez's salary and benefits for a year. And I'm a Yankees fan."

The Global Environment Facility, a partnership of multilateral banks and United Nations agencies, has pledged to direct a total of about $25 million over the next three to four years.

With sufficient support, Long said, even imperiled species such as the tiger can survive.

"Unfortunately, what it really comes down to is a mixture of financial resources and political will," he said. "If both of those were boundless, we wouldn't have a problem, but unfortunately, that's not the case."

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