Scientists gave wild tigers a terminal diagnosis in the early 90s, saying they could fend off extinction until 2000. Host Steve Curwood talks with conservation biologist John Siedensticker of the National Zoo and the Save the Tiger Fund about how they've helped tigers beat the extinction odds so far.
CURWOOD: In the early 1990s, biologists didn’t think wild tigers would last long enough to see the new millennium. But rather than giving up, scientists focused their conservation efforts in places where they felt they could make a difference. The result: the Save the Tiger Fund says today there are still healthy tiger populations in Russia, Nepal, Bhutan and southern India.
John Siedensticker is senior scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and chairs the Save the Tiger Fund Council. John, let’s use the Russian far east as an example. Why did your conservation efforts there work out so well?
SIEDENSTICKER: Well, I think we had a variety of approaches. First of all, we supported work that was ongoing by the Wildlife Conservation Society, so we understood exactly what tigers needed to survive. We invested in, what are now called, the Amba patrol. Amba is a Russian word for tiger. These patrols were a new approach to kind of treat tiger poachers as a--in the same way you would treat insurgence. So, we got people who knew about conservation security involved and supported their efforts.
We launched, through local NGOs, a broad public awareness campaign of the tigers’ plight. And we’ve supported long-term monitoring so we know exactly how we’re doing. When we have problems, and sometimes there are tigers who get themselves into trouble with people, we have supported rapid response teams so that we don’t have a situation where you’re killing the wrong tiger, or many tigers, if there’s a tiger that’s in trouble. We go after the right tiger and then you make decisions about whether it can be translocated, or whether it can be rehabilitated, or whether it needs to be euthanized.
And so I think with all of this, it has given us the sense that the tiger has a fighting chance in the Russian far east now. And believe me, in the early ‘90s nobody gave what they called the Amur tiger or the Siberian tiger much of a chance.
CURWOOD: Now, in many of the places where tigers live there are also people. How do tigers interact with people when they’re sharing the landscape?
SIEDENSTICKER: Tigers are very specialized predators. They can’t live on small ungulates, and they don’t live on rabbits. They have to have big pigs, deer, and, in some cases, wild cattle. When they have adequate prey, they don’t get themselves, usually, in trouble eating people’s cattle, nor people. People have lived for years right next to tigers and it’s been--there’s this crunch for resources that leads to most of our problems with problem tigers.
CURWOOD: How does the Save the Tiger Fund work to influence those human-tiger interactions so that both parties come out unscathed?
SIEDENSTICKER: Well, let’s start with--the Save the Tiger Fund, we worked out kind of a formula that we call the five C’s. We need core areas where tigers are basically undisturbed. You need the connections between core areas, forests that connect core areas. The third C is you have to have the support of local communities. The fourth C is that, because tigers are top carnivores, wherever they live and wherever you manage to preserve them, they act as umbrella species for just about everything else that lives there. So, you preserve biological diversity in general. And then, the fifth C is we need communication so that we have a broad public awareness. We’re not going to save tigers without everybody’s involvement.
You need, also, the support of local communities. Local communities have to buy into the process. In the process of conserving tigers, you have to improve a lot of local communities and so, our effort has been to invest where we can in these buffer zone areas, in these connecting areas, in ways that local people come out of it ahead, too.
CURWOOD: Can you briefly tell me a success story here of conserving a tiger population in an area that you thought was very difficult?
SIEDENSTICKER: Yeah. I’ll go back to where I first went to Nepal, back in 1972. And the Royal Chitwan National Park was not yet quite declared. It had been a former hunting reserve. And it was just an area that was just this overall mix, like these buffer zone areas, and turned into cities, absolute commons, and the forests had been overrun with cattle.
And I was lucky enough to go back a couple of years ago to look at this, and there has been a marvelous transformation. And it was really exciting because here was a piece of land that had really taken on new and added value. Because they had become actually local guardians, if you will, of wildlife that lived in and around the reserve. As a result of their efforts, these buffer zones were changing into good wildlife habitat, as well as areas that were providing grass and firewood and places to graze their more select breed of cattle.
It was just an area that was working. It was working because we had local buy-in, people were doing it themselves, they were empowered. The money they were gaining from tourist revenues of looking at these areas were going into health clinics and into improving schools. Women were being trained to have vocations. It’s a model for what can be done to include local people in a formula that ultimately benefits tigers and their prey.
CURWOOD: Now, you’ve done fieldwork in Nepal, Indonesia, India. What’s it like to see one of these animals out in the wild?
SIEDENSTICKER: It’s always like a dream. When you see a tiger, they kind of come into your consciousness. Just as easily, they sort of fade away. There’s all that power and grace and beauty and it can explode at any minute, and it’s just a marvelous, splendid experience.
CURWOOD: Conservation biologist John Siedensticker is senior scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and chair of the Save the Tiger Fund Council. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
SIEDENSTICKER: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Greg Brown “The Tyger” Songs of Innocence & Experience, Red House (1986)]
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