How not to save the tiger


By Oliver Tickell THE battle to save the tiger will be lost unless conservationists change their tactics, warns a leading expert. Only 6000 tigers survive in the wild, just 5 per cent of the number recorded in 1900. Now Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington DC, has denounced the current approach of trying to preserve the genetic diversity of the five separate tiger subspecies across Asia. He points out that many of the subspecies exist only as small, vulnerable populations in fragmented habitats where their survival is unviable unless these habitats are linked by protected “natural corridors”, through which tigers and their prey may disperse. He also argues that the variations between populations are too small even to justify their classification as subspecies, let alone define a conservation strategy. Instead, conservationists should concentrate on boosting the strongest, most viable populations of tigers, and on maintaining the diversity and quality of their habitats. This would also help other animals and plants in the same habitats (Conservation Biology, vol 12, p 865). Dinerstein and his ten coauthors from the WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York note that previous attempts to save tigers have relied on mathematical models and computer simulations to assess whether a population is sustainable. But tigers and other cats are very difficult to keep track of, they say. The researchers propose a ranking system to help conservationists decide which areas to protect. What is most important, they say, is the size of the habitat and its quality, followed by the extent to which tigers are hunted there and the size of the tiger population. Their system ranks tiger areas according to these criteria. Those that score highest, say the researchers, should be considered first for funding and conservation work. The team used these criteria to assess the conservation potential of 159 tiger areas in India, Indochina and Southeast Asia, areas that included moist deciduous and evergreen forest, tropical dry forest, temperate upland forest, mangrove swamp, peat swamp and alluvial grassland. Of the 159, 21 were considered “excellent” candidates for protection and 25 good candidates. Dinerstein notes that of the 788 488 square kilometres his team considered as having excellent conservation potential, very little—only 22 per cent, or 172 912 square kilometres—is protected. This emphasises the need for a change of course before these last strongholds for tigers are fragmented by logging and farming. “Although all areas containing tigers are worthy of conservation effort, available funds are insufficient to protect them adequately.” Paul Toyne, a tiger specialist at the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Britain, agrees with the new strategy. “Conservation spending is limited so we have to be careful where we spend our money, and this research is helping us to do that,” he says. “What’s the value in trying to save small, unviable populations of just a few tigers? Better concentrate on core areas with healthy populations and link them together,
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