Friday, May 2, 2008

Rare Sight: A tiger in India's Ranthambore National Park

By Lily Huang | Newsweek Web Exclusive
May 1, 2008 | Updated: 4:27 p.m. ET May 1, 2008

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.


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