Tigers, Now and Forever

Revered—and feared—by humans for thousands of years, tigers possess characteristics people desire: brawn, skill, and singular focus. People have loved tigers for centuries, yet today the big cats’ numbers are frighteningly low. On Global Tiger Day, July 29, we invite you to join us in committing to the cause of preventing these regal felines from vanishing forever.

Since ancient times, many Asian cultures have viewed tigers as the king of the jungle (sorry, lions, your realm is the savanna). In Chinese, the word for king, wang, is represented by a character made up of three horizontal lines. Interestingly, a tiger has a marking of three stripes across its head—the cat itself bears the “king” marking!

The strength and power of a tiger is legendary, and it is this astonishing vigor that people have long yearned for. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has long used tiger body parts in the belief that they can treat various illnesses, even though there is no scientifically proven medicinal value. Still, for some of the world’s population, tiger-bone wine is given as a supposed gift of vitality for the upcoming year. With populations of tigers plummeting everywhere they are still found, these practices are not sustainable. However there are glimmers of hope; in 1993, tiger bone was removed from the TCM pharmacopeia. Changing traditions, however, can take time—something that tiger populations don’t have. Throughout their remaining range, these cats are protected by law and there is a worldwide ban on the trade of their body parts, yet poaching remains a serious and persistent problem.

From India to China, Siberia to Sumatra, each tiger range country has created preserves for tigers and the wildlife that share their habitat. However, as human population in these areas grows and spreads to the edges of “tiger country,” a serious challenge arises; can tigers and humans coexist? And, there are tigers that live outside of protected areas, as well. In these unprotected parts of their range, they are seriously affected by habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging and development of palm oil plantations.
But all is not yet lost! Those of us in this part of the world can help tigers hold onto their habitat, using “purchase power.” Pay close attention to what you buy: look for food products that contain only designated sustainably farmed palm oil (or none at all) and check that wood products are labeled as sustainably harvested.

Within the native range of tigers, community conservation programs and educational campaigns are two effective tools being used to keep tigers from being pushed over the edge of extinction. By channeling our own “tiger power”—carefully stalking what we buy and pouncing on opportunities to support conservation efforts—we can keep the kings of the forest prowling into the future and celebrate many more Global Tiger Days.

Wendy Perkins is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous article, The Puaiohi Sings Again.