November 2010 Global Tiger Summit

"CHINESE YEAR OF THE CUDDLY TIGER : 15 February 2010 - 2 February 2011"

A tiny girl staggers forward as the huge, menacing form of an Amur tiger strides from the undergrowth and a young boy rushes to save her. Not from the Tiger, which is safely behind two metal fences at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, but from ice cream cascading down her chin from a melting cornet. But the appeal of the tiger is all pervading. The boy quickly turns to watch this secretive woodland creature which is suddenly visible, seemingly accessible.

We are now over half way through the 'Year of the Tiger'. It's a time you might think to celebrate the Tiger's strength and resilience. Yet by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger in the Chinese 12-year zodiac cycle, Tigers could be extinct in the Wild. Habitat loss, prey depletion, disturbance, poaching, illegal hunting and trade in body parts (for traditional medicines), all threaten to reduce today's wild population of only 3,200 to Zero. Yet, just a hundred years ago, tigers numbered 100,000. Its decline has been agonisingly rapid and it may already be too late to save the Wild Tiger!

This pessimistic estimate forms the basis of immediate concern for delegates at the forthcoming Global Tiger Summit taking place at St Petersburg, Russia, 21-24 November 2010. The Summit will be co-hosted by World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Espoused nature lover, Mr Putin is known rather for elaborate exploits which boost his political prowess. In 2008 he is said to have saved a TV crew from an escaped Amur tiger by darting the animal with tranquilliser. In the same year he accepted the present of a tiger cub - most likely not under an NGO 'Adopt a Tiger' scheme. Top politicians from 13 countries with tiger populations (Russia, India and eleven East Asian countries) are attending the Summit. All zoos and NGOs, such as ZSL (Zoological Society of London), WWF (World Wildlife Fund), WSC (Wildlife Conservation Society (US)), striving for tiger conservation, desperately hope this Global Summit will be no "tame Tiger" ready to rubber-stamp unachievable objectives and set unrealistic deadlines.

The male Amur tiger, from Russia's far east, can weigh up to 350 kg. At Marwell, looking every bit the part, Gamin, a statuesque twelve-year-old male, with long-term mate Yenna, paces majestically inside their grassy compound. Each walks with gaping mouth, displaying a broad deep-pink tongue and dangerously-long yellowed incisors. Suitably impressed by this display of tiger power and armaments, children up and down the country flock to buy fluffy yellow-and-black striped Tiger mementos. Cuddly toys feature widely. But occasionally, bizarre and disturbing reports can destabilise this cosy image. Last August, a live 2-month-old tiger was discovered at Bangkok airport in a bag destined for a flight to Iran. Though heavily tranquillised the trauma suffered by the young tiger is unimaginable, as, perhaps, is the motivation of the woman handbag-owner who was arrested under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement. In October at Mainichi, Japan, police confiscated three stuffed tigers: one adult and two tiny cubs. Nine people are in custody charged with illicit trade.

In the vast snowy birch and pine forests of East Russia, Amur Tigers (Gamin's wild cousins) barely number 300-400 individuals. With their prey, deer and boar, widely dispersed, a male Tiger may need 500 of forest through which to hunt. Usually he will share this with two or three breeding females. The effects of illegal hunting and forestry can quickly threaten local tiger populations. Sarah Christie, responsible for ZSL's work in Russia, is keeping a close eye on the Summit. She earnestly hopes "that Mr Putin will increase protection for the Amur Tiger by significantly tightening up enforcement laws". Currently hunters who illegally kill the tiger prey, pay insignificant fines. They are also handed back their guns! More insidious still, are the bullet holes often detected in tiger hides when researchers tranquilise the animals for monitoring purposes.

Certainly Sarah's sentiments would appear to be shared by enthusiastic crowds celebrating the annual Tiger Day in September at Vladivostok. The city's main road fills with people jostling or marching in parades: the tiger theme prevails, with both adults and children sporting stripy black-and-yellow ears and faces, or wearing whole tiger costumes. Even the WWF Panda makes an appearance offering competition prizes of Korean pine seedlings for reforestation projects. Tiger Day was started 10 years ago by The Phoenix Fund - a Russian NGO working for wildlife and forestry preservation and Mr.Putin might take account of Phoenix's growing education programme. Recently, in Primorye, eastern Russia, they ran a well-attended, two-day tiger workshop providing support materials to teachers and schoolchildren, including a "Teachers for Tigers" DVD.

In rural areas, tigers often share their homes with villagers struggling with poverty and illiteracy to scratch a living. Working with national governments, zoos and NGOs can engage local people in tiger conservation through schemes for volunteering and employment, so enhancing understanding of the tiger's needs and, at the same time, improving family finances. NGOs play a large part in this work, with fully one quarter of all donations raised by them for Tiger conservation, going to projects in Russia. In her article in "Tigers of the World", Sarah Christie reinforces the role of zoos as a support for conservation and not as a substitute for animals in the wild. Captive-bred animals, particularly carnivores don't have the survival and hunting skills necessary for them to succeed, or breed, in the wild. If a species becomes locally extinct, but a nearby population exists with the ability to disperse, researchers will work towards this as likely to be more successful than reintroduction. On the rare occasions when reintroduction is considered, the advice of conservation bodies, as well as the knowledge and requirements of local people, should be of paramount importance.

In addition to their role in conservation, zoos should, in Sarah Christie's words, "amaze, inspire and engage the public". To fulfil this role zoos must keep their animals healthy. Zoo vets worldwide regularly exchange information on animal welfare, behaviour, feeding regimes and drug tolerance. Blood tests provide information of an animal's health but for large carnivores, such as the tiger, this can mean the use of anaesthetics - a hazardous and potentially life-threatening procedure. For Whipsnade's vets however, "Catching a Tiger by the Tail" is routine. Resident tigers, Mickail and Anastasia, have been trained to lean their metre-long tails against their enclosure fence for 'blood-letting'. Clearly a sight to experience - but not perhaps a skill to be passed on to vets in other zoos, just yet.

While delegates at the Summit grapple with protection measures, law enforcement, fines and responses to poaching, children and parents in the U.K. are targeted with money-making ploys to support conservation work. At Marwell and other zoos we learn that breeding programmes will ensure a sufficient supply of more little, captive-born, tiger cubs for zoos, and posterity. Gamin and Yenna have done their bit, and their last cub Zambar, is now at Blackpool Zoo awaiting a suitable mate. With their blood lines assured and Gamin vasectomised, he and Yenna can stay together into secure old age - unlike their wild relations. But can this be the only way to attract young people into caring about the very few tigers remaining in the Wild? Children do seem acutely aware of the threats to their favourite 'Cuddly Tiger': many wanting 'to work with tigers', or, given Simon King's successful example, 'to be a wildlife photographer'. And we learnt recently that one winning photo in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, 2010, portrays a Bengal tigress stalking her prey.

But if this is how we all - children, adults, biologists, research workers - and yes local people - feel about tigers why hasn't the allure and magnificence of these dramatic wild beasts succeeded in halting their spiralling decline? Governments attending the forthcoming Summit must face up to the challenges we set if 2022 is not to be a World Without Tigers. But shouldn't every one of us 'take up the cudgel' to support the Tiger. If we don't act, right now, by pressurising national governments and international bodies into supporting tiger conservation, then photographs and cuddly toys may soon be all that remains to us outside zoos - of these captivating wild creatures.

========================== Kris Slokum ==========================