At the beginning of the 19th century there were 40,000 tigers in the world. Today, around 4,000 are left in the wild, more than half of them in India.
For centuries, tigers have been hunted as status symbols and turned into “decorative” items such as wall and floor coverings, souvenirs and curios, as well as being used in traditional Asian medicines.
Until the 1930s, hunting for sport probably caused the greatest decline in tigers. In many areas they were regarded as a nuisance that needed to be eradicated. Notoriously, the last Maharaja of Surguja shot and killed a total of 1,710 tigers and also shot the last three Asiatic cheetahs in India (known there as hunting leopards) before becoming extinct himself in 1947.
Attitudes were slow to change. By the late 1980s the greatest threats to tigers were loss of habitat due to expanding human populations, and activities such as logging and the trade in tiger bones for traditional medicines.
Now, United Nations former chief photographer John Isaac has released a short film called “India’s Tigers: A Threatened Species”, highlighting the need to save this endangered species, threatened by environmental degradation, water shortages, and poaching. The film can be freely seen on a number of web sites including UN Web TV.
Tigers provide enormous economic benefits for the local communities, attracting tourists to parks like Ranthambore National Park, situated in Rajasthan, India, where most of Isaac’s film was shot. They also control the number of sambar deer and play an important role in balancing the ecosystem.
However, increasing numbers of people in the areas where tigers have historically lived are leading to increasing clashes between villagers and tigers. Along with overpopulation and climate change, illicit poaching is on the rise. Tiger body parts are used in Asian medicines and tiger claws are used in jewellery. Their whiskers are considered a poison in Malaysia and a powerful aphrodisiac in Indonesia.
According to UN reports, ancient trade routes are being used to smuggle tiger skins and bones to buyers based in northern India, who smuggle them out of the country through Nepal. Poachers will kill a tiger in India for $20 and by the time it gets to China it will be worth half a million dollars. In India itself, the Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972) covers wildlife crime, but it lacks proper enforcement.
Nevertheless, the World Wildlife Fund is optimistic. “Nature is on our side; tigers are plentiful breeders and can breed faster than their prey. With proper safeguards in place, including measures for habitat and prey species, and stopping tiger poaching and habitat destruction, we can double the number of wild tiger populations by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.”