Saving the Biggest of the Big Cats

As a child in the 1980s I was very much enamored with tigers. For many years I was a lucky member of the National Geographic Society’s video club. Once a month I got a new documentary from National Geographic, most of which were about wildlife. My first video was called Land of the Tiger. It had a profound effect on me and was the first time I realized I needed to care about conservation.

I remember having a “Save the Tiger” poster on my bedroom wall. I donated some of my allowance to the World Wildlife Fund. I still have my two stuffed tigers (mom and baby) from childhood that I have now passed on to my 2-year-old son. When I ask my son if he wants to go to Potter Park Zoo the first word out of his mouth is “tigers.” Of all the big cats, tigers are, to my mind, by far the most beautiful, regal, powerful, and mysterious.

Imagine the sadness I felt, then, when I read this article earlier this month. As reported in the Telegraph, a UK newspaper and website, “The WWF announced [July 9th] that the wild tiger population has now fallen as low as 3,200, down from an estimated 100,000 in 1900.” Those are the lowest recorded numbers since people began tracking wild tiger populations. Twenty-five years after the big push in the 1980s to restore wild tiger populations, we are in no better position today. The big culprits cited are familiar to anyone with a heart for wildlife—hunting and habitat loss. According to the World Wildlife Fund, without intervention tigers will be extinct by 2022.

Take that in for a moment. By the time my son is in 8th grade, the apex predator of Asia could be gone. Gone. What do I say to him when he asks why my generation didn’t save the tiger?

We like to think that things like this won’t happen, at least not in our lifetime. We like to think of extinction as something that happened in the past and was caused by meteors and volcanic eruptions. We like to think that there’s nothing we can do so why even try. But it’s simply not true. Extinction does happen—every year. And humankind is a cause of it. And we can make a difference.

Three tiger species have become extinct within the last 80 years—that’s one lifetime. The Balinese tiger became extinct in 1937. Most believe that the Caspian tiger became extinct in the late 1950s. And in the late 1980s, when I was watching National Geographic’s Land of the Tiger, the last evidence of the Javan tiger disappeared from the earth.

Tiger extinction is not outside the realm of possibility. But the wonderful thing about having a part in the responsibility for the tiger’s demise is that people also have a part in its restoration. In fact, the survival or extinction of the tiger is completely in our hands.

I’m proud to have a strong connection with a zoo that is an active part of preserving the Amur tiger (formerly known as the Siberian tiger). Despite its relatively small size, Potter Park Zoo is caretaker of 19 animal species that are part of the Species Survival Plan, including the Amur tigers. In 2005, PPZ saw four tiger cubs born. They were quickly in mortal danger due to a virus passed on by a stray cat. Against all odds and because of the skill, diligence, and passion of PPZ staff, three survived. They will go on to be mothers and fathers of even more tigers in other zoos.

But if tigers are to survive in the wild, zoo breeding programs are not enough. You cannot breed animals and then release into areas in which habitat is gone and poachers abound. Odds are if you’re reading this now you live in the Lansing, Michigan area, not China or India or Russia. And if you live in Michigan, odds are you’ve got a lot of other things on your mind right now—jobs, foreclosure, education, health care, public transportation. What can you possibly do to help stop illegal hunting or the destruction of tiger habitat? Is it even your responsibility?

Amur TigerStart by educating yourself and your children. You can’t care about something if you don’t know about it. Visit the zoo and spend some concentrated time watching the tigers (hint: big cats sleep a lot, but they are more animated in the morning and in the evening). Become a zoo member to support our breeding programs. Adopt a zoo animal—like one of our tigers. Visit some websites devoted to wildlife conservation. They are full of ideas about how to make a difference and be part of the solution.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t give up hope and write it off as inevitable. The only thing inevitable in this world is that someday we’ll die—and our chance to make a difference will be over.