Tigers, Politics and Money
For many years, Siberian tigers roamed throughout the forests of Korea and China, along the east coast of Russia, and into Siberia. Encountering humans only rarely, tigers had little to fear from them. However, in the late 19th century, Russian settlers poured into the Far East to build the eastern Chinese railway and, in the process, tried deliberately to eradicate tigers from the land.
According to a 1930’s census, only 20 to 30 tigers survived the settlers’ attempted extermination. In 1952, with few Siberian tigers left, Russia became the first country to ban the hunting of tigers. After gaining legal protection, the number of Siberian tigers grew to about 400, which is the estimate of their status the wild today.
In the desperate economic times of the post-Soviet years, poaching has become a serious threat to the tigers’ survival. As the countries of the former Soviet Republic undergo the grueling transition from a socialist system to a capital market and fledgling democracy, the salaries of working people cannot keep pace with the sky-rocketing costs of goods, leaving many people to live in poverty.
While the price of a loaf of bread rises from 16 kopeks to 20 rubles (more than 100 times as much), a tiger skin brings in 200,000 rubles– four-years’ salary for some people. And the market for other tiger parts used in traditional medicine offers additional money. Under these conditions, many believe that wildlife conservation is a luxury.
Meanwhile, the Russian government is selling off their old-growth forests–prime tiger habitat–to raise needed revenue. In order to find enough prey to hunt for nourishment, the female Siberian tiger roams 125-250 square miles of habitat, and male ranges extend to 500-620 square miles.
As the forests are reduced to smaller parcels, prey animals dwindle, and tigers fight to survive. Russian officials estimate that 40 percent of the Siberian tiger population may have been lost between 1990 and 1994.
In addition to Russia, the political and economic situation of other tiger-range countries have also contributed to the tiger’s demise. In 1959, the Chinese government declared the South China tiger a pest, and encouraged its eradication. Although China joined CITES in 1981, the South China tiger doubtfully survives in the wild.
Unstable political conditions in Myanmar, home to the Indo-Chinese tiger, have frustrated wildlife research and management for decades. It still is not known how many tigers survive in Myanmar. Cambodia, also home to the Indo-Chinese tiger, has been racked by decades of war, further restricting protection of the Indo-Chinese tiger.
Biologists only recently have been granted limited permits for basic wildlife surveys. For economic and political reasons, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Bhutan and North Korea lack adequate tiger surveys as well.
Weak Governmental Laws and Enforcement
Many of the tiger-range countries’ governments have established legal provisions to protect the endangered tiger. In addition, most tiger countries are members of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) which bans the trade of tiger parts (the exceptions are Burma, Lao PDR, and Cambodia). However, inadequate legal structures, political commitment, and financial resources severely limit domestic enforcement efforts.
Despite legislation banning hunting, the staffs employed to protect tigers in “protected areas” often are not legally empowered to enforce anti-hunting laws. For example, they may be restricted from searching for or confiscating hunting weapons, arresting or prosecuting poachers, or even carrying guns to protect the tigers — as well as themselves — from poachers.
Furthermore, anti-hunting laws that protect tigers do not protect tiger prey, leaving tigers in vital tiger habitat without food. Nor do they protect endangered tiger populations that exist or stray outside protected areas, or roam across country borders.
Forestry and wildlife departments are too understaffed and under-budgeted to save the endangered tiger from poachers. Lacking funds, organization, compensation for high-risk work, recognition, training, motivation, camps inside the protected areas, night patrols, and resources such as firearms, vehicles and communication equipment, the guards’ efforts to enforce of anti-hunting laws are ineffective.
Poor standards of living also leave some officials vulnerable to corruption. The tigers’ increasing scarcity and Asia’s booming economies drive the price of tiger parts up, offering great incentive to poachers who bribe some governmental officials to turn the other cheek.
Improved national legislation and international support, when combined with the promotion of alternatives to traditional Chinese remedies and habitat protection, are a vital part of the strategy to save the tiger from being an endangered species, or from becoming extinct.