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Can we save the tigers? It may already be too late

Updated: 
July 10, 2014 - 12:05am

A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed across 24 Asian countries, from Turkey to Indonesia. Today, they have disappeared from most of their historic range, and poaching, deforestation and a huge Chinese market for tiger parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and as luxury items have reduced their numbers to no more than 3,200.

Photojournalist Steve Winter spent a decade photographing tigers in the wild in Asia. In 2007, when his life partner, writer Sharon Guynup, joined him for an assignment in India’s Kaziranga National Park, they both came away concerned about the fate of these great animals.

“We realized that tigers are almost gone, and no one seems to recognize that,” Guynup said.

The couple have collaborated on a book, “Tigers Forever,” that combines magnificent images of the wild animals with troubling text about their dwindling state. Guynup said they hope it will shock the world into doing something “before the tigers are gone.”

The two recently spoke by telephone with The Post on what it will take to save the world’s biggest cat.

Q: Americans often assume that tigers are protected. How have conservation efforts failed?

A: Guynup: Because big conservation organizations have such huge fundraising needs and large administrative costs, their message to the public is often “We’re saving tigers, we’re saving polar bears.” I think that message has lulled the public into believing that we’re actually making progress. The biggest downfall of every large conservation organization today is that they are not addressing the demand (for tiger parts). Unless the demand from China is stopped, tigers won’t survive very far into the future. … And the combination of legal tiger farms in China, where they can legally sell skins, and an ongoing trade in tiger bone for tiger bone wine (believed to cure arthritis and impart strength, among other things) is killing the wild tigers across their range.

Q: Are those sales to China the biggest threat to tigers?

A: Guynup: Poaching has really skyrocketed, and it’s fueled by the legal trade within China. There was a call by the international community in 2007 for all tiger-range countries to phase out tiger farming. But China’s tiger farms have only grown. As long as those farms exist and there is a legal trade, they will not only stimulate demand but also launder all the wild products.

China argues that they should be able to have tiger farms because it’s a domestic issue. But it’s not. That demand is killing India’s tigers and Thailand’s tigers and other countries’ tigers.

Winter: Stopping habitat loss is also very important. I saw that in Sumatra. When I first went to Sumatra for a tiger story, we thought that (the Sumatran) tiger would be the next subspecies to go extinct. Now, that no longer seems to be the case (because their population appears to be higher than previously estimated).

But there also doesn’t seem to be any movement toward protecting whatever land is left and stopping the rampant destruction of the forest for palm oil and wood. The fact that tiger numbers are now understood (to be higher than previously thought) in Sumatra is important. And value has been placed on their continued survival by some important people in Indonesia. For example, one of the country’s most influential businessmen, Tomy Winata, has (become interested). He founded a tiger sanctuary in 1996, which is part of a national park. With effective enforcement and zero tolerance toward poaching, he and his team have successfully secured a significant area.

Q: Your book chronicles both the thrills and perils of tracking tigers throughout Asia, including dodging a charging rhino and patrolling for poachers with rangers. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Winter: I think that always the biggest challenge is showing readers something they haven’t seen before and creating renewed interest. You would never see a tiger in Sumatra or Thailand without using remote cameras, and because of the way I use remote cameras with artificial lights that balance with the daylight, I sometimes get pictures that people think look fake. Or they just stop when they see them. Which is great, because even if someone says, “Wow, that looks unreal,” they’ve just spent five seconds longer on that picture than they normally would.

Q: What else should be done to help save tigers?

Guynup: The international community needs to join together and pressure China to stop the sale of tiger parts, skins, bones, all tiger parts from all sources, both captive and wild. And tiger-range countries need to use tools that are available through Interpol and other international agreements, to step up enforcement. If the demand is stopped, if the tiger farms are phased out and enforcement steps up, we can save tigers. But if that doesn’t happen, they’re going to disappear, possibly within our lifetime.

There are heavy population pressures in Asia, but India has over 40 tiger reserves. There’s plenty of land. And now many areas are working to set up corridors to connect these reserves, so that the populations don’t become inbred. As long as tigers have habitat, food and protection, they’re a very resilient species. They bounce back. There is hope.