John Seidensticker on saving wild tigers

Only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. Experts predict that, without international intervention, wild tigers will go extinct by the year 2022.

Wild tigers are in trouble. We spoke to Dr. John Seidensticker, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. In late 2010, he attended a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, organized as an international effort to prevent wild tigers’ extinction. Dr. Seidensticker explained that only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. All of them live in Asia.

John Seidensticker: Thirty-two hundred would be a nice number of tigers if you had them in one place or two or three places, but in fact they’re divided up into probably more than 76 small populations that are not connected anymore. And each of those populations, because they’re so small, are very, very highly endangered.

Experts predict that, without international intervention, wild tigers will go extinct by the year 2022. Seidensticker explained why.

John Seidensticker: Tigers have been recognized as endangered for 40 years, but in that 40 year period there are twice as many people that live in Asian countries where the tigers live.

To support Asia’s double-digit population growth – and also economic growth – tiger habitat has been eaten up. In addition, Seidensticker said, poaching is another major threat to tigers.

John Seidensticker: There’s an increased demand for tiger hides, for décor, there’s an increased demand for meat, so there’s a massive illegal wildlife trade that’s not under control.

Dr. Seidensticker said that at the 2010 St. Petersburg tiger ‘summit’, , called by the president of Russia and also the head of the World Bank, representatives of dozens of Asian nations declared a willingness to double the number of tigers in the world within the next 12 years. He said these countries – ranging from China to Nepal — are now moving together to secure legal and financial backing.

John Seidensticker: Those people all have demands on their economies to have better lives, and the double digit kinds of growth seen in East and South Asian countries to support that economic growth, and so you have habitat being fragmented diminished, and reduced.

He said because criminality, politics, economics and science are all involved, international cooperation – that is, cooperation across borders – is absolutely necessary when it comes to saving wild tigers. He discussed the unprecedented nature of the St. Petersburg tiger summit of 2010.

John Seidensticker: We’ve participated in what I think is a historic event. We’ve never been able to get the heads of state to get together on behalf of the biodiversity in the past…Nepal, China, Russia, Bangladesh and Laos PDR.

Seidensticker said there’s a misperception that tigers are endangered principally because of their use in mainstream Chinese Medicine.

John Seidensticker: In the past, 10 or 15 years ago, the issue really was for traditional Chinese medicine, but that’s not the case anymore. Professionals in Chinese medicine say they want to play a part in tiger conservation, but there’s this lingering sort of folk medicine demanding tiger parts.

Seidensticker added that tigers – and wild cats generally – play an important role in the collective imagination. And, he said, if we can’t save tigers, it’ll be a blow to conservation efforts worldwide. If we can’t manage to save tigers, he wondered aloud, can we save any animal at all? Over the past century he added, the wild tiger population has dwindled down from about 100,000.

Beth Lebwohl