Tiger, tiger, not burning so bright
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-10 07:52

Tiger, tiger, not burning so bright

Imagine an animal adapting itself to frostbiting cold, desert heat, sultry swampy mangroves, dense tropical forests, mountains, river valleys and seacoasts. It's man, okay. But another animal has done so, and without the help of a roof over its head, without clothes and without tools, modern or ancient.

The tiger has survived (and could have thrived, but for us human beings) in these harsh conditions. Its existence, however, has been threatened ever since man invented the firearm.

By the time we stopped the massacre of these magnificent beasts, it was too late to save three of its sub-species: the Caspian, Balinese and Javan. The massacres stopped, but not the killings. We realized the importance of conservation. We began captive breeding. And today we know the faults with captive breeding. It leads to inbreeding, making the big cats vulnerable to a host of diseases. Tigers bred in "lab" conditions lose their natural instincts. They cannot regain their place at the top of the food chain in the wild.

But inbreeding is not a threat only in "lab" conditions. As the latest research on Amur tigers - based on their DNA samples - shows, it can threaten tigers even in the wild. Consider this: About 500 Amur tigers roam the wilds of Russia, China and North Korea, but their effective number is less than 35. Blame it on genetic diversity. The more genetically diverse a species or sub-species is, the higher its chances of survival.

Expanding human settlements, loss of habitat and poaching had wiped out 90 percent of the Amur tigers by the early 20th century. Only 20-30 tigers were left in the wild by the 1940s. A ban on hunting and painstaking conservation efforts helped the biggest cat to recover slowly, but not its genetic health.

What could have led to the lowest genetic diversity among a wild tiger population is its division into two groups. The majority of Amur tigers are found in Russia's Sikhote-Alin Mountains. A corridor of development between Vladivostok and Ussurisk separates them from the other, much smaller group that survives in southwest Primorye in Russia. It's almost impossible for a tiger from one area to cross into the other, reducing the chances of gene-sharing across the development corridor.

This is another example of what development, with even the best of intentions, could do to the environment. If the barrier separating the Amur tigers is not opened, the fear of the rarest tiger sub-species becoming extinct could come true sooner than later.

Once the tigers are gone, the forests will go, too. The future of the tiger and its habitat are linked to all human beings' survival.

The forests that are protected to save the tiger are very important for the fight against climate change. The tiger not only sits on top of the food chain, but is also an indicator of ecological health. It symbolizes good governance and political commitment to an equitable and sustainable future.

Environmental activists and NGOs in India have already coined a slogan: Save the Tiger, Save the Forest, Save India. It would help if all the countries where the tiger still survives took it (changing the country name, of course) up as their own.

The logic is simple: We save the tiger, we save the forests; we save the forests, we save the trees; we save the trees, we stop the greenhouse gases (GHG) stored in them from polluting the atmosphere.

Just an example: An old tree could store up to 300 tonnes of carbon.

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com