Animals & the Environment: The Decline of Tigers

by Kacey Barton

Panthera Tigris. The tiger. One of the largest and most iconic of the wild cats, yet one of the most threatened. A tiger’s coat can vary in color, from the recognizable red-orange and white, to the much rarer golden tabby and pseudo-melanistic; their stripes helping to camouflage their position when hunting. But even tigers can’t hide from habitat loss and poaching.

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Tigers used to boast over 100,000 individuals in the wild – but according to the International Union for Conservation of Animals, that number has decreased to 3,890 as of a 2016 population census. There are efforts being made by organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund to increase the world’s wild tiger population by working together with the governments in countries with these populations in an effort called the Global Tiger Recovery Program (called Tx2).  The goal of the program is to double the world’s wild tiger population by 2020, the next zodiac year of the tiger.

While the increase in recorded population numbers and protected areas is positive, tigers are still facing a variety of threats. In illegal wildlife trade, tigers are mainly prized for their coats and bones, believed to have healing properties in traditional Asian medicines. Organizations such as Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) seek to eliminate this trade, which poses a significant danger to tigers in the wild. In addition, wild tigers are also facing widespread habitat loss. Increasing human population, deforestation, and lack of prey due to human action are all culprits for the disappearance of habitats that tigers used to call home. The palm oil industry is one of the lesser known offenders of habitat loss, but one that packs a significant amount of damage to tiger habitats.

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On my search for more information on the plight of tigers, I found myself at the Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina. The facility was founded in the 1970s by UNC geneticist Michael Bleyman as research facility for breeding small carnivores called Carnivore Evolutionary Research Institute. Eventually, the organization began receiving rescue inquiries for big cats, thus becoming the Carolina Tiger Rescue in 2009, having halted the breeding program to focus on conservation and education in 2002.

We began our private tour of the facility with a brief informational session. Our guide went over the no-touch policy that the rescue enforces – the animals are only touched when sedated for veterinary exams in order prevent interference with the animals’ wild nature. He then explained the history of CTR, the purpose of the rescue, and that the rescue itself is one of only 15 in the United States that is certified by the United States Department of Agriculture; they don’t buy, breed, or sell their animals and have unannounced inspections from the USDA.

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The tour then began with Rajah, one of the many tigers at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. Throughout the tour, we were introduced to and greeted by several kinds of big and small wild cats, including servals, caracals, lions, ocelots, cougars, bobcats, and of course, tigers. There were many animals who were not featured on the tours and were instead set inside 55 acres of forested land, invisible to visitors. Every individual at the rescue had their own story, just as their species have their own struggle; from a lion kept in a small cage for two years, to a serval dropped off at the rescue’s parking lot. Seeing these animals in person was an educational and awe-inspiring experience, one that can’t be replicated through video or print.

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If we continue to ignore the consequences of our actions in the habitats of wild animals all over the globe, the animals we see today will be reduced to just pictures on a page. Consider taking action by eliminating products that use palm oil, donating your time or money to rescue organizations that help in conservation, doing something as small as buying a resuable water bottle or spreading the word on the current threats these magnificent creatures are experiencing can pay back in dividends.

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