by Whit Gibbons

January 6, 2008

The killing of a person in San Francisco in late December by an escaped tiger was a tragic event, and sympathy for the man's family is appropriate. Finger-pointing after the fact about whether walls at the zoo were high enough to contain the animal or whether the tiger was taunted by zoo visitors before its escape is of interest to lawyers but does little to address a greater global tragedy. Tigers serve as a poster child for where much of the world is going environmentally.

Tigers are one of the five species of big cats, which include leopards, jaguars, snow leopards, and lions. Tigers from Siberia and Manchuria are the largest cats in the world, with maximum confirmed body lengths of nine feet plus a tail up to three and half feet. Tigers from regions of the East Indies are much smaller. Noting morphological variability among tigers across different geographic regions, scientists separated the species into several distinct subspecies. Some subspecies are now extinct in the wild, and most tiger populations today are critically endangered, hanging to existence by a thread, and in need of constant conservation attention. The future for wild tigers looks bleak.

The historical geographic range of tigers was vast, from Turkey and India to Java and Sumatra to Manchuria and Siberia, an area greater than all of the United States. These giant carnivores once lived in habitats as diverse as tropical jungles, snow-blanketed rocky uplands, natural grasslands, and coastal swamps.

If you think scaling a 12 1/2-foot wall at the San Francisco zoo (equivalent to jumping onto the roof of a house) was remarkable, consider some of the scientifically documented facts of wild tigers. Tigers can leap horizontally more than 32 feet, have been recorded to swim more than 18 miles (most cats don't swim at all), and travel overland more than 37 miles in one day. The largest home range size recorded for a tiger was over 4000 square miles. A measure of tiger strength comes from a report of one that killed an adult Indian bison (the largest species of cattle) and then dragged the dead body almost forty feet. The tiger's feat is underscored in that a dozen men who later tried to move the huge bison carcass could not budge it.

Being such impressive creatures of strength, tigers not surprisingly are honored as the national animal of six countries, including India and both Koreas, the team nickname for at least nine college teams (beginning with Princeton in the 1800s), two U.S. professional teams (Cincinnati Bengals; Detroit Tigers), and even a golfer. Ironically, many organizations that use the tiger as a symbol offer no support or at least give no thought to conservation measures to preserve the species in the wild. Not thinking about conservation of wild animals does not help maintain the world's wildlife but is not as bad as the developer who cuts down the forest to make a subdivision and then names the streets after trees and birds.

Wild tigers are an icon for the perils faced by most wild animals left on earth. Identifying the major threats to their survival is an easy task. Doing something about it is more difficult. The most commonly cited cause of wildlife loss, including tigers, is habitat degradation and destruction due to unconstrained and uncontrolled human development, forest timbering, industrialization, urbanization, and inefficient agriculture. Clearly, habitat loss is a direct consequence of human overpopulation, and fixing that problem will take changes in attitudes on an international scale.

Another major impact on many tiger populations is the unregulated removal of animals by poachers. And why would anyone want to kill or capture a tiger? Among the most significant lame reasons are that some Oriental cultures actually believe that tiger bones have medicinal value. The illegal tiger trade appears to be increasing in parts of Asia, in part because of lax government controls. A visit to the 21st century might be a good idea for people with these attitudes.

Some people will never accept that any reason is justification for preserving animals such as rattlesnakes, tigers, and sharks that could kill us; other people will always side with the animals. Tigers seem like a good species to be on the side of.

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