By Graham Land
The largest of the big cats, the tiger is a critically endangered species — its numbers having dropped from circa 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to less than 4,000 wild individuals today. Tigers once lived across Asia, but have been wiped out from nearly all of their original habitats, remaining only in small pockets of South and Southeast Asia, Siberia and China. Their range spans 13 countries in total. Habitat destruction, competition with humans, trophy hunting and traditional medicine have all contributed to the tiger’s steep decline.
In India, where at least half of the world’s wild tigers live and enjoy greater protection than anywhere else, economic development an ever-growing human population is still a large threat to the big cat’s survival. A tiger was recently killed in a wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka after it killed two women. The tiger killed the first woman in a village 300km from the sanctuary, after which authorities captured and relocated it. Yet nervous locals spotted the tiger several times and one biologist expressed concern that it had lost its fear of humans. On December 24 the tiger killed again, this time a pregnant woman who was gathering water from a stream. After a massive four-day hunt involving hundreds of officials and tribal trackers, the tiger was shot dead.
Meanwhile, far to the north, a Siberian tiger released by Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to have killed at least 15 goats in northeastern China, while another raided a farm, eating five chickens. Another Siberian tiger reportedly killed a horse in the city of Mudanjiang.
What is a tiger’s life worth? One person’s? Two? Many people whose land overlaps tiger habitat would sooner see the tigers disappear than live in fear of losing livestock and even their own lives.
Yet tigers are hardly a menace on any significant scale and as a species have certainly come up short in their struggle to survive on a planet dominated by humanity. People have not learned how to live alongside large and dangerous predators. These animals need their space and their prey. India has reserved significant amounts of land as tiger sanctuaries, even going so far as to only allow tourism on 20% of this territory. Nonetheless, conflicts still arise between tiger and human. Some instances, like the above tragedies, are simple brutal facts of life: Poor rural villagers crossed the path of a desensitized tiger and paid with their lives. In fact, technology meant to keep track of the tiger’s whereabouts failed to do its job — the radio collar the tiger in Karnataka was wearing stopped working. Normally, however, the conflict between man and beast is one sided, with humans as the clear and ruthless aggressors.
In a global system that commodifies everything in order to make maximum profit, it’s not so strange that tigers are more valued for their potential exploitation than for their contribution to biodiversity. This is a dog-eat-dog world and capitalism likes it that way.
Thousands of tigers are kept in cramped and often cruel conditions as pets or lucrative attractions. In the US alone, there are more tigers kept in backyards than live in the wild worldwide. But even more sinister are Asia’s tiger farms, which legally raise the big cats for their pelts and sometimes illegally for use in traditional medicines. For those involved in the breeding of tigers for commercial purposes, for those who poach tigers from wildlife sanctuaries, sell their pelts or body parts for bogus remedies, a tiger’s life can be worth quite a lot — both alive and dead.