Wildlife trafficking was one of the topics of 2014. It rose to prominence with politicians and monarchs alike intervening to heighten its importance. Here, Sean Mowbray discusses the greatest, but least discussed, challenge facing wildlife conservation in 2015 – an ever growing human population.
Tigers are one of the species that typify the problems of human population growth in developing countries. In order to preserve wildlife populations it may be necessary to look beyond the obvious and question whether these species have any place in a world increasingly full of those beings which pose the greatest threat to them.
Tiger populations have diminished dramatically in the last century. A survey of available estimates from TRAFFIC, WWF and the EIA suggests there are between 2,000 and 3,500 remaining in the wild. The IUCN has also noted a 50% decline in the population since the 1990s. The outlook for improvement is bleak as it is also stated that decline in some areas may be irreversible. Across the thirteen countries that make up tiger range, multiple pressures have combined to place tigers in the midst of a fight against extinction in the wild. Poaching, loss of habitat and human – tiger conflict are all important factors in the decline of populations.
Hunted to Extinction
Like elephants, rhinos and so many other species, tigers are hunted out of a human desire for their parts. Whether they are being consumed in centuries old Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or are acquired to show off wealth, all parts of the tiger are sought after inside and outside of Asian range countries.
Between January 2000 and April 2014, an estimated 1600 tigers were poached. It is likely that the true number of tigers poached is higher given the limitations of border security. Poaching is thought to account for nearly 50% of tiger deaths in some areas of India. Tigers are under such threat due to their value and vulnerability. As they lose their territory they become easier targets for those who would seek to profit from their death.
Shrinking Forest, Shrinking home
Tigers have now lost around 93% of their historical range due to rampant deforestation to make way for urbanisation, agricultural expansion including the spread of palm oil plantations and other destructive industries. Loss of habitat has placed great pressure upon tiger populations as they are now forced to remain within often isolated areas of forest where there are diminished levels of prey, inhibiting their chances of survival.
In demanding more and more from the land to feed a rising population or provide homes for new families, the home of the tiger is being sacrificed at the altar of progress. It is a challenge equal to poaching in magnitude. By reducing the tiger’s natural habitat and opening up forest to exploitation, would be poachers can hunt and bag the animals with greater ease. In a sense the tiger is brought to the poacher, an issue that is also increasingly putting human populations at risk.
As their forest home shrinks tigers must look further afield for food. In some cases this has led tigers to range into human settlements.
In his book Bones of the Tiger: Protecting the Man-Eaters of Nepal, Hemanta Mishra, a distinguished conservationists states that one tiger – named the Champawat Man-Eater – was responsible for some 436 attacks upon humans, an infamous record from the 1950s. The book also notes the factors that can lead a tiger to become a man-eater. In many cases the tigers are maimed or infirm limiting its ability to hunt effectively, human beings can present a relatively easy target in this case. Similarly the reduction of its natural prey drives the tiger to pursue alternative sources of food.
The Common Denominator
We have seen that poaching is perhaps the greatest danger to tiger populations, but if we consider the long term view, the picture becomes a little different and a lot more difficult to confront. Nowadays, tiger populations are being squeezed from all sides as their habitat is torn down to provide precious wood, minerals, food products and space for a human population that has no indication of slowing its growth. As our population grows and grows we will place even greater strain upon the land, bringing the threat of extinction ever closer as tiger habitat is reduced to even smaller pockets of forest.
The three causes mentioned above can all be connected back to human population growth. It presents a development challenge that is controversial for obvious reasons, but action upon population growth from the perspective of the biosphere is of vital importance. Otherwise in the conflict between human beings and nature there will inevitably be one victor, and our world will be a lesser place for it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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