I don’t believe that saving species one at a time is really the answer: we should try to save whole ecosystems. But our planet is full of truly awesome creatures, and it’s good to take time to celebrate them. We need to remember, not just what we’re fighting against, but also what we’re fighting for. Not just a world that’s better for us, but a world with room for magnificent beings that are older and stronger than us.
One is the Siberian tiger, also known as the Amur tiger. If any species deserves the title “charismatic megafauna”, it’s this. Here’s a photo of one, taken by John Goodrich:
At one point, there were only 30 Siberian tigers left in the wild. Now there are several hundred. Most of them live in the birch forests of eastern Russia, with a few in China and North Korea. Their range is far smaller than it once was. They used to live in many places, including Iraq and Kazakhstan. In their western range they were called the “Caspian tiger”. Many were killed by the Russian army in early 20th century.
There’s a reason the Russians killed off these tigers. They’re fierce!
Yesterday I heard the story of a poacher who made the mistake of shooting a Siberian tiger and wounding it but not killing it:
• The true story of a man-eating tiger’s ‘vengeance’, Morning Edition, NPR, September 14, 2010.
Give it a listen! Some good lines:
“Imagine a creature that has the agility and appetite of the cat and the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”
How high can an Siberian tiger jump?
“As high as it needs to.”
Hint: don’t tease one if the fence between you and it is only 3.8 meters high. (For you Americans, that’s twelve and a half feet.)
The full story is in this book:
• John Vaillant, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, Knopf, New York, 2010.
You can see an excerpt on the NPR website.
The irony, fully brought out in the book, is that this fierce, deadly creature now needs our protection to survive — because we’re even more fierce and deadly. We’re the biggest kids on the block: it’s time to start acting like grownups.
From the book:
One of the many negative effects of perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China has been a surge in tiger poaching. As the economy disintegrated and unemployment spread throughout the 1990s, professional poachers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens alike began taking advantage of the forest’s wealth in all its forms. The tigers, because they are so rare and so valuable, have been particularly hard hit: their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Some believe the tiger’s whiskers will make them bulletproof and that its powdered bones will soothe their aches and pains. Others believe its penis will make them virile, and there are many — from Tokyo to Moscow — who will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger’s skin.
Between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers — roughly one quarter of the country’s wild population — were killed. Most of them ended up in China. With financial assistance (and pressure) from international conservation agencies, the territorial government created Inspection Tiger in the hope of restoring some semblance of law and order to the forests of Primorye. Armed with guns, cameras, and broad police powers, these teams were charged with intercepting poachers and resolving a steadily increasing number of conflicts between tigers and human beings.
In many ways, Inspection Tiger’s mandate resembles that of detectives on a narcotics detail, and so does the risk: the money is big, and the players are often desperate and dangerous individuals. Tigers are similar to drugs in that they are sold by the gram and the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of both product and seller. But there are some key differences: tigers can weigh six hundred pounds; they have been hunting large prey, including humans, for two million years; and they have a memory. For these reasons, tigers can be as dangerous to the people trying to protect them as they are to those who would profit from them.
Some good news: in 1986, the Chinese government established a Siberian tiger breeding base at Heilongjiang Northeast Tiger Forest Park. According to the current breeding rate of tigers at the park, the worldwide number of Siberian tigers will break through 1,000 sometime this year!
Even better: Iranian and Russian ecologists are planning a joint project to return Caspian tigers to the wild in Central Asia. They want to do the same for an even more endangered species, the Asiatic cheetah, but some scientists think this is a risky move, since there is no captive breeding population of the Asiatic cheetah.
Someday I’ll write much more about “rewilding” projects, like a plan to restore parts of North America to a semblance of its late-Pleistocene state. With genetic engineering we might get mammoths back; otherwise we’d have to settle for elephants.