24 July 2015 | Five-Part Interview Series with Sharon Guynup by Craig Kasnoff
Sharon Guynup has written for the New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American, National Geographic.com, Popular Science, and many other significant publications. She is co-author of “Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat”.
Part Two: Threats Facing Tigers in the Wild?
Q: What are the key threats facing tigers in the wild?
Sharon Guynup: Tigers need just the basics to survive: enough space, food and safety, and without those three things, they won’t survive. The three main threats correspond to these basic needs.
Tiger habit continues to shrink. They’re gone from 93 percent of their historic range. Tiger habitat once stretched across Asia from Turkey eastward to China, and from Russia all the way to Sumatra. Tigers hang on in just 12 countries, often in isolated scraps of habitat.
People hunt many of the same animals that tigers prey on, leaving the cats little or nothing to eat. Many of those prey animals are protected species—and are hunted out of national parks.
And as demand for luxury tiger products continues to rise in China, tigers are increasingly in the crosshairs, poached for a lucrative, international illegal trade in wildlife.
Q: What is the main reason for habitat loss? How does population impact the habitat issue? Is possible for tigers and humans to co-exist?
Sharon Guynup: There are various reasons that tiger habitat is disappearing, but chief among them is Asia’s exploding human population and the resources they require, from crop fields to roads and energy development. India is poised to overtake China as the most populous nation on Earth—and its home to the largest remaining population of tigers.
The Sumatran tiger faces a different threat. Sumatra’s fertile lowlands have been almost entirely denuded to produce rubber, coffee, paper, acacia—and especially palm oil. It’s the world’s most popular oil, often labeled “vegetable oil,” used in everything from energy bars pizza and makeup to soap, and increasingly, biodiesel fuel.
People and tigers can co-exist if humans don’t hunt their prey; don’t encroach on remaining tiger territory, and maintain the large swathes of forest and corridors connecting disparate populations. Young tigers need to be able to move to establish their own territory, and the cats need space to hunt and find a mate.
Q: What is revenge killing? What impact is it having on tiger populations? How can this be stopped or contained? What will that cost?
Sharon Guynup: When local people hunt out all the deer, wild pigs, and other prey that tigers need to survive, the hungry cats turn to livestock—and farmers then retaliate by killing them. With so few wild tigers left—possibly 3,200, split among five subspecies—the loss of every tiger has an impact on the shrinking gene pool.
In India, an ongoing government initiative to (voluntarily) relocate villages outside of tiger reserves has made a difference. Villagers are moved to nearby areas that are close to schools, are on the power grid, and allow them to graze their cows, goats, and buffalo safely—and tigers get more space. So it’s a win-win, but its cost vast amounts of money.
Q: Who is doing the poaching and why? What is being done to stop poaching—and what else needs to be done?
Sharon Guynup: Poaching is rampant across tiger territory. Everywhere the tiger walks, there’s a price on its head, but most poaching happens in India because it’s home to perhaps two-thirds of all that remain. There, local villagers or local indigenous people may do the killing, but most of the perpetrators are nomadic gangs, says Nitin Desai, who directs the Wildlife Protection Society of India’s anti-poaching activities.
These gangs come into town in a group, often accompanied by their wives and children who sell trinkets on the street to divert attention while they’re camped there. They use metal traps to snare a tiger—a bullet would ruin the valuable skin. “They do a kind of surgical strike, take down the tiger, remove the skin and bones and leave the area in about three hours,” says Desai.
Until fairly recently, wildlife crime was low on the list of priorities for law enforcement in many countries. But in the last three years, there’s been a dawning global realization that international cartels run the illegal wildlife trade, $19 billion a year business that in some cases is funding civil wars and terrorist activities. It’s the world’s 4th most lucrative illicit activity after guns, drugs and human trafficking.
But now the world is paying attention. In 2013, Achim Steiner, who heads the United Nations Environment Program, called for a global crackdown, and environmental crime has now gained the attention of the U.N. Security Council, General Assembly and other U.N. bodies. Interpol set up “Project Predator,” a special unit that targets poaching and trade in tigers and other big cats.
The EU is in the process of forming an Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking. In February, the Obama administration introduced a plan to fight wildlife trafficking that includes using American intelligence agencies to track the trade’s kingpins and will increase pressure on Asian countries to stop the buying and selling of wildlife products. As the San Francisco nonprofit WildAid says, “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
NEXT Part Three: Tigers Farms
For more information about endangered species go to Bagheera.com
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered Species.com
For more information about endangered tigers go to Tigers In Crisis.com
Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered Tigers.com