“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright” – but not for much longer

“The Tyger” is a poem by the English painter and poet William Blake, published in 1794 as part of his collection Songs of Experience. Blake may never have seen a tiger (London Zoo only opened the year after his death), but he would have deplored the callousness of a world that allowed them to become extinct.

“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

The Amur (or Siberian) Tiger is the largest living cat in the world. They do not actually live in Siberia, but in the Russian Far East in the Amur-Ussuri region, while a few are found across the border in northern China and Korea. The Amur tiger’s habitat is a unique forested area of dense vegetation in summer, which turns cold and snow-bound in the depths of winter. Much of the terrain is mountainous and rugged, crisscrossed by logging roads. Amur tigers need large domains in which to survive due to the relative lack of prey. Conservation groups are working hard to create protected areas in which humans and tigers can live side by side.

The Amur tiger is the largest and heaviest subspecies of tiger. To survive winter the tiger has fine, long fur and a layer of fat that enables it to withstand the bitter cold. The coat is lighter in colour than other tigers and it has large paws which act rather like snow shoes. During the early 20th Century, the Amur tiger was driven almost to extinction as expanding human settlements, habitat loss, and poaching reduced its natural range by more than 90%. By the 1940s, just 20 to 30 individuals survived in the wild. A new study has found that this “genetic bottleneck” (when the breeding population is extremely low) decimated the Amur tiger gene pool.

According to a recent BBC story, while approximately 500 Amur tigers survive in the wild, the “effective population” is now fewer than 14 animals. The effective population is a measure of its genetic diversity, so the Amur tiger is critically endangered. Very low genetic diversity means that any vulnerability orrare genetic disorder is likely to be passed on to the next generation.

A low effective population is a blow to hopes that the number of Amur tigers will increase. More genetic diversity leads to a much better chance of survival in the wild. It is more likely, for example, to improve genetic resistance to a variety of diseases and less likely to succumb to rare genetic disorders, which can be “cancelled out” by healthy genes.

Tigers are an indicator of the health of the varied ecological systems of which they are part. Tiger conservation is, therefore, vital to the conservation of many other rare and threatened species, as well as to sustaining essential ecosystem-services that forests provide, such as watershed protection, soil conservation, and carbon storage. The World Bank has committed itself to tiger conservation, together with the International Tiger Coalition, the Global Environment Facility, and other participants of the Global Tiger Initiative. In a collaborative effort, the Bank is working to build greater awareness of the fact that protecting tigers and other important species and their supporting ecosystems is essential to ensuring the health and ecological security of human beings.

In 19th century London, the Tobacco Dock on the banks of the River Thames was the landing place for vast cargos of rice, wine, spices, furs, brandy, ivory, and animal skins. Adding to the cacophony were the calls of tigers and elephants, imported by Charles Jamrach, his father Jacob, and later his son Albert Edward. The business began in 1791. The Jamrachs had a reputation for buying and selling any animal, as evinced by the Noah’s Ark of species crowded into their holding store at Betts Street. Seamen delivered an assortment of monkeys, parrots, and small animals to their door. Larger creatures – elephants, tigers, camels, rhinos, bears – arrived in crates to be placed into iron cages.

In his poem, William Blake expresses his awe for the tiger, marvels at its evolution, and dares us to admire its “fearful symmetry” (meaning harmony of design and beauty). Maybe he did see one. We may not be so lucky.

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