14 August 2014 | Interview by Craig Kasnoff
An Endangered Species Day Interview on Saving Tigers in the Wild:
Sharon Guynup has written on topics ranging from climate change, fracking, the discovery of the SARS virus in bats, the physics of melting glaciers, mercury’s impact on wildlife and humans, the safety of nanotechnology, and the state of the oceans, to the genetic sequencing of the TB virus, toxic chemicals in household products, conservation tigers, jaguars, Asian turtles, sharks, pronghorns, and others–and has chronicled eco- and adventure travel.
Her latest project is Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat, a collaboration with award-winning National Geographic photographer Steve Winter. The book melds spectacular images of tigers and their secret behaviors with insights into why one of the world’s most iconic species is careening towards the edge–and describes the extraordinary efforts to save them. The book is published by National Geographic Books and distributed by Random House.
In this interview Sharon talks about “saving tigers” in the wild.
Question: Why did you (and Steve Winter) write Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat?
Sharon Guynup: Steve is a wildlife photojournalist who worked for a decade on assignment for National Geographic in search of wild tigers, with stories on the creation of the biggest tiger reserve in the world in Myanmar’s Huakang Valley, a story on the incredible biodiversity of Kaziranga National Park in northeast India (which has possibly the highest density of tigers in the world)–and then finally, a tiger story, where he spent two years trying to capture images of this magnificent cat in Sumatra and Thailand and a few locations in India, hoping to reinvigorate global concern as their numbers continued to plummet.
In 2007, I was working on a story about rhino poaching in Kaziranga–when I glimpsed my first wild tiger and began writing regularly about big cats. In 2007, global estimates of remaining wild tigers hovered around 3,500; by the time Steve’s Nat Geo story “Cry of the Tiger” ran in National Geographic in 2011, estimates had dropped to about 3,200.
The idea of a world without tigers is sad beyond words–and we were driven to speak louder, hoping to help jar the world into action before it’s too late. So together we produced Tigers Forever. But we wanted to tell the tiger’s story: Just showing pretty tiger pictures will not save them. People need to know the threats that face tigers, what must be done to mitigate those threats, and see what’s working on the ground–and what isn’t.
Our book explores why these cats have been both feared and revered throughout human history, details why they are disappearing–and outlines the bold initiatives to save them. I interviewed over 60 tiger experts across the globe (mostly in Asia–there were many months where I became somewhat nocturnal, up much of the night on Skype calls with people that were in time zones that were 10 1/2 to 12 hours ahead). Today, biologists estimate that perhaps three thousand wild tigers remain, scattered in small pockets across Asia in 13 countries, six subspecies (though one, the South China tiger, may be extinct in the wild).
Question: How and why did you become interested in tigers?
Sharon Guynup: I was one of those kids who dragged home an endless stream of emaciated, damaged creatures that I found in the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up. They were the first of a lifetime of mammals, birds, fish, lizards and rodents that shared my home and that I’ve admired in nature. I have always been awed by the world’s creatures, not just the cute furry ones. But my first pet was a kitten that I dragged home at the age of four, Squeaky, a tiny orphan that I bottle-fed and hovered over for few weeks; we were bonded for life. I hold a deep, special affection for cats.
Early in his career at National Geographic, Steve did a story on jaguars. Those months in Latin American rainforests tracking jaguars sparked a lifelong love affair with big cats. Since then, he’s done stories on snow leopards, tigers, mountain lions and is currently working on a story about leopards.
Question: What do you see as the biggest threat facing tigers in the wild?
Sharon Guynup: There is a perfect storm of threats facing tigers: shrinking habitat that’s being razed by the region’s skyrocketing human population; dwindling food supplies that continues to disappear as forests fall and humans hunt for the same animals that tigers eat (and kill tigers that then prey on livestock, with farms literally on the edges of wildlife reserves and little else to eat). The third of these is quickly wiping out remaining tigers: slaughter of tigers in India and across their range for a lucrative market in China for tiger skins (used for home decor) and bones (used in tiger bone wine, a traditional Chinese medicine tonic made by soaking a tiger carcass in rice wine).
According to Debbie Banks, tiger expert at London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India, and other top tiger experts agree that if the Chinese demand from all sources is not stopped, tigers will not survive.
Question: What do you see as the best option to save them? And how can the “everyday” person help save tigers in the wild?
Sharon Guynup: The good news: there is still enough habitat to support healthy tiger populations. One thing I’ve learned is that they’re very adaptable.
When you add boots-on-the-ground protection, strong laws, enforcement and careful monitoring, they bounce back. A tigress breeds at the age of three and can birth 15 cubs in her lifetime. It’s a very productive species. But it will take committed, targeted action and creative strategies to bring tigers back. Saving them will require the expertise of the best scientists, and those experts must share their knowledge with governments and prod them to act.
Governments must protect remaining habitat. And they must safeguard tigers from poachers with armed protection in the national parks where the cats still thrive. Armed guards? Yes. Parks need patrols for the same reason that cities need police. And governments must enact stringent laws—and prosecute poachers. In India, which is home to half the world’s remaining wild tigers, there is a 3 percent conviction rate for wildlife crime.
And the communities that live with tigers must benefit from living side by side with a dangerous predator—tourist dollars and/or compensation for lost livestock.
But saving tigers also requires a world that cares. The world must hold China accountable for the 5,000-6,000 captive tigers they’re raising on tiger farms–with legal sale in the country of skins from those tigers and a shady trade in bones that end up in tiger bone wine, feeding an incredibly lucrative international trade in tiger parts that is wiping out tigers across tiger range.
There are three organizations that are really making a difference: The U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency, the Wildlife Protection Society of India in Delhi and WildAid, a US-based organization. Every dollar donated to these organizations goes towards work that front-lines tiger conservation–not funding a huge, ponderous conservation organization that may claim to be saving wildlife, but actually may be accomplishing little.
If we want to have tigers in the world, we must speak up and speak loudly. In the words of renowned field biologist George Schaller, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories. It’s a never-ending process that each of us must take part in.”
We still have time. Where there’s life, there’s hope. But, as I note in the final words of Tigers Forever: “The time to act is now. Once the last tigers disappear, no longer gliding on velvet paws through the jungle, we cannot bring them back.”
A special thanks to Sharon Guynup for taking the time for this interview and for her -and Steve Winter’s- amazing efforts in helping to save tigers in the wild.
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered Species.