Tiergarten Tigers

As ambassadors for their species these elegant cats help the non-profit zoo raise awareness for environmental protection

Preserving the habitat of a two-month old Indian tiger | Photo: Martin Harvey/WWF-Canon

“Look at its muscles! Look at the graceful way it moves! That’s why the tiger is so fascinating.” Dr. Harald Schwammer, the Vice Director of the Schönbrunn Tiergarten in Vienna’s 13th District is showing me the tiger enclosure at the world’s oldest zoo. It’s a warm, sunny afternoon and the resident tiger is lethargically slinking off through its green, leafy enclosure, past a murky pond to the shade.

Schwammer is of two minds about keeping these magnificent animals in confinement. They belong in the wild, yes, but as a zoologist deeply involved in conservation projects on three continents, he also sees the tigers partly as ambassadors for their species helping the non-profit  Schönbrunn Tiergarten raise awareness and passion for protecting our beleaguered natural environment – and as a means to raise money for conservation projects.

The tigers need every voice they can get right now. Their numbers have been decimated by the rampant destruction of their natural habitat. In the past 100 years, global wild tiger populations have been reduced by 95%. This year is both the Chinese Year of the Tiger and the UN International Year of Biodiversity, and conservationists like Schwammer see it as an opportunity to galvanize efforts to save the magnificent and iconic large cat from extinction. The giant felines now top the World Wildlife Fund list of the 10 most important endangered species, and the heads of state of the 13 countries that still have wild tiger populations are meeting this autumn in Vladivostok, Russia, to try to agree on conservation strategies to double the global population of wild tigers by 2022.

Experts say that whatever action is agreed upon, it had better be drastic. It’s estimated that there are only 3,200 tigers left on the planet, with that figure continuing to dwindle year by year. Indeed despite several high-prestige conservation initiatives, the number of tigers in the wild has halved in the past decade.

The poaching of tigers is a lucrative business. Debbie Banks, a senior tiger investigator with the Environmental Investigation Agency says that organized criminal networks are playing an increasing role in a trade, in which a single pelt can fetch up to $12,500 in China. But it is the trade in body parts that is proving most lucrative for the poachers – a business based on a belief, widespread in Asia, that tiger bones have almost miraculous medicinal properties. The scale of the problem is illustrated by the attest of a notorious poacher and trader called Sansar Chand in 2005. Indian Authorities say this one man was responsible for the killing of 1,000 tigers.

While the number of wild tigers continues to fall, the number of cats in captivity is rising. There are reportedly around 5,000 animals kept on “tiger farms” in China, many of them kept in deplorable conditions in cramped cages. Why would you farm tigers? Well many are outwardly labeled as ‘safari parks’ and bases for breeding projects, but campaigners says this is just a front and the tigers are killed to feed the trade in body parts. Officially, China has outlawed the sale of goods from these farms, but Debbie Banks says this law is regularly flouted: “In a number of premises, not only in China but across Southeast Asia, tiger bones are being turned into tiger bone wine and being leaked on to the market.”

Banks explains that the ‘wine’, which is sometimes brazenly sold in tiger-shaped bottles, is a coveted status symbol that an ambitious businessman might give to his boss when trying to curry favor. She says that tigers on the farms are often malnourished, and farm owners use this as an excuse to sell the body parts – saying it helps them fund their breeding programs.

At some of the farms, tourists are told that the tigers are being prepared for a future reintroduction into the wild. This justifies the “spectacles” of live-feeding sessions where, for an extra charge, tourists can see chickens or oxen thrown in to be attacked by tigers – and often posted on the internet, to an audio background of giggling Western tourists.

But can tourism benefit tiger conservation if it is well-managed? Eco-tourism has been credited with persuading Rwandans that gorillas are worth much more to local communities alive than dead, and that tourism offers a better long-term future than logging or poaching. The same could be true of the wild tigers on India’s 37 vast reserves – the income from eco-tourism, so the argument goes, can be funneled into scientific monitoring projects and anti-poaching units.

Accompanied by guides, you do have the opportunity to spot wild tigers from open-topped jeeps or atop elephants on the reserves. Richard Thomas of the wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic did just that and got to within about ten meters of a wild tiger: “You could almost look straight into its eyes. You could tell how powerful it was. It’s such a superb animal. My heart almost stopped.”

But the reserves, which bring money for a sustainable conservation effort, are a double edged sword. Oversubscribed sighting trips can cost as little as 600 rupees, around 12 euros, and observers like journalist Geeta Pandey say the tigers are being “loved to death” by visitors. Indeed this year the Indian government decided to limit tourist contact to the tigers – denying visitors access to some of the country’s reserves.

But while the government can keep tourists out, the poachers are a different problem. Some conservationists believe the true number of tigers left in India may be little more than half the official tally due partly to shoddy counting.

In January 2005 the Sariska national park was forced to admit that all of its supposed 35 tigers had been killed in an incident that conservationists called “a national disgrace.” In an attempt to stem the loss, the group Tiger Watch has started hiring local people as informants against the poachers for 3,500 rupees (around 60 euros) a month as informants. But the killing goes on: this year Panna Reserve in Madhya Pradesh province announced it had lost all of its estimated 30 animals.

“At this rate,” says Pandey, “experts fear that soon we will not have a single tiger left in in the wild.”

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