The World Wildlife Fund today issued a warning that tigers could be extinct in the wild within 15 years. Over the past 100 years, their population has declined by 97%, leaving the possibility that, even now, the population may be too small to be genetically viable.
Most of us have only seen tigers in zoos, or perhaps even only on television. Even in zoos, they have a remarkable presence, an aura of power, and disdain towards the people outside the enclosure. They are the ultimate apex land predator on Earth, and have no enemies. Except for, unfortunately, people.
Mankind is responsible for the dramatic, even catastrophic, decline in the tiger population. While 300kg of tiger may be the ultimate predator, 75kg of human with a rifle is more than a match. Tigers are ruthlessly shot down by trophy hunters, and by those who use their body parts for traditional Asian medicine. Those tigers that are not simply shot at long range face other pressures.
An adult tiger requires between 20 and 100 square kilometers of territory, and they are solitary animals, not sharing that territory with other tigers. Tigers live in some of the most densely-populated areas of the planet, which brings them constantly into conflict with humanity. Save for very rare occasions, the tigers always lose.
Even when protected by law, and given large reserves, tigers still face pressure, from poachers and human encroachment. Reserves are often fragmented, giving some land to the tigers and some for human use, which inevitably produces added conflicts.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine a solution that will spare these amazing creatures. There are simply too many human beings sharing territory with the tigers. In some areas, like the Russian Far East, it may be possible to protect these animals, but the market for pelts and other body parts is so lucrative, that enforcement and punishment needs to be draconian.
In the short to medium time frame, zoos and preserves in the west may be the best hope for the tigers, to preserve them until a long-term solution can be found. The best answer, at least for the tiger, is to have far fewer people around. This, however, will not happen any time soon, if ever.