The following is a guest post from National Geographic Magazine highlighting the severe decline of the tiger. In the early part of last century, there were around 100,000 tigers throughout their range. Today, fewer than 4,000 of these big cats remain in the wild and at least 3 of the 9 tiger subspecies are already extinct. As with many species worldwide, tigers are being pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, poaching and climate change.
By Caroline Alexander
Photographs by Steve Winter
We have the means to save the mightiest cat on Earth. But do we have the will?
The tiger. Panthera tigris, largest of all the big cats, to which even biological terminology defers with awed expressions like “apex predator,” “charismatic megafauna,” “umbrella species.” One of the most formidable carnivores on the planet, and yet, amber-coated and patterned with black flames, one of the most beautiful of creatures.
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat’s, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping—flying—from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger—Aaaaauuuunnnn!—can carry more than a mile.
For weeks I had been traveling through some of the best tiger habitat in Asia, from remote forests to tropical woodlands and, on a previous trip, to mangrove swamps—but never before had I seen a tiger. Partly this was because of the animal’s legendarily secretive nature. The tiger is powerful enough to kill and drag prey five times its weight, yet it can move through high grass, forest, and even water in unnerving silence. The common refrain of those who have witnessed—or survived—an attack is that the tiger “came from nowhere.”
But the other reason for the dearth of sightings is that the ideal tiger landscapes have very few tigers. The tiger has been a threatened species for most of my lifetime, and its rareness has come to be regarded matter-of-factly, as an intrinsic, defining attribute, like its dramatic coloring. The complacent view that the tiger will continue to be “rare” or “threatened” into the foreseeable future is no longer tenable. In the early 21st century, tigers in the wild face the black abyss of annihilation. “This is about making decisions as if we’re in an emergency room,” says Tom Kaplan, co-founder of Panthera, an organization dedicated to big cats. “This is it.”
The tiger’s enemies are well-known: Loss of habitat exacerbated by exploding human populations, poverty—which induces poaching of prey animals—and looming over all, the dark threat of the brutal Chinese black market for tiger parts.
The photos are in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now.