Sharon Guynup on Saving Endangered Tigers (Part One)

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21 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”.

Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat is 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.

The Malayan Tiger: photo by Craig Kasnoff

Part One: Tiger Status and Why Do You Care?

Q: What is your experience with tigers and tigers in the wild? Why do you care?

Sharon Guynup: In 2008, I was given an assignment to explore the state of tigers in India. I travelled to Kaziranga National Park, in the state of Assam, a scrap of northeast India sandwiched between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar that is one of Asia’s few remaining strongholds for a staggering variety of wildlife, many of them endangered species.

Here animals are crammed into a relatively small Noah’s Ark in numbers usually only seen on the African savannah. There’s lots of prey, and over 300 armed guards protecting the park, so tigers live here in the possibly the highest density anywhere, over 100.

This is where I saw my first tiger: thrilling and terrifying. He was a mature male, massive, both sleek and powerful, majestic. It’s no wonder that this animal has been both feared—and revered—throughout human history. This cat, the world’s largest, is utterly awe-inspiring. Seeing a tiger in the wild, and learning about their precarious status compelled me to speak up for them before they’re gone.

Q: What is the current status of tigers in the wild?

Sharon Guynup: When I wrote that story in 2008, India’s first accurate tiger survey had just come out, shocking both that nation and the world with the discovery that at most, 1,411 Bengals remained. But I didn’t realize until I’d written a book with photographer Steve Winter a few years later—Tigers Forever—that almost no one was aware that at most, 3,200 wild tigers remained across their entire Asian range. Divide that among five subspecies, scatter them in small pockets across 11 countries, and do the math.

Tigers are almost gone.

The international illegal wildlife trade has come front and center over the last two years, with growing global attention exemplified by an international summit in London last year and a call for fast-track solutions to the poaching crisis by the UN Environment Programme. Massive elephant and rhino slaughter has grabbed headlines and sparked action—but tigers are being forgotten in the global discussion. Though fewer tigers are being killed, tiger poaching has skyrocketed in recent years.

Q: What was their status, say, 100 years ago?

Sharon Guynup: No one knows exactly. But at the turn of the 20th century—around the time that Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book”—experts think there were about 100,000 tigers.

Q: Why have numbers dropped so dramatically?

Sharon Guynup: It’s a long history of slaughter, consumption of tiger products, and loss of the cat’s habitat. Royal tiger hunting dates back to the early 16th century when Mughal rulers staged these “shikars” with nobility hunting from horseback or elephant, pursuing the ultimate trophy—a tiger. Under the British Raj, tiger hunts grew widespread.

According to historian Mahesh Rangarajan, “over 80,000 tigers…were slaughtered in 50 years from 1875 to 1925. It is possible that this was only a fraction of the numbers actually slain.” After Independence in 1947, there was a hunting free-for-all in India—that coincided with a fashion craze for fur coats in the US and Europe that decimated big cat populations across the globe.

Then came the final blow: As China’s economy grew, a rising middle class had more disposable income. The demand for tiger remedies used in traditional Chinese medicine grew—especially tiger bone. And most recently, tiger products (tiger skins which are used in high-end home decor, very costly tiger bone wine—made from soaking a tiger skeleton in rice wine, tiger meat, and other products) have become luxury items for China’s elite, bought to show power or influence, gifted to “seal the deal” in business transactions.

The South China tiger: photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Q: How would you classify the South China tiger (since it is not in the wild) and what would you say its status is? Do you think there is any hope of creating a sustainable population—or do you think it is just a matter of time before it becomes the next subspecies of tigers to become extinct?

Sharon Guynup: There may be a handful of South China tigers still alive in the wild, hidden in remote forests, but many believe they exist only in captivity—in zoos and tiger farms—farms that literally farm tigers like pigs or chickens for slaughter.

The history: As part of his Great Leap Forward initiative, Mao Zedong labeled tigers as one of four species preventing progress, promoting an eradication campaign that wiped out three-quarters of the population. In 1950, there were about 4,000; by the mid-1960s, perhaps 1,000 remained. With rising demand for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, the rest quickly disappeared.

Captive tigers have been released into the wild in a very few situations. Once they’re used to being around humans, they come too close to human settlements, posing danger to themselves or to people—or hunting livestock (which make easy prey), and end up dead. Unless any will animal is in an internationally accredited zoo, they are inbred or crossbred.

Q: So can they survive long-term?

Sharon Guynup: The genetics of China’s captive South China tigers are poor, there are very few animals left alive in the wild in China—so there no prey for them even if they could be released, and regardless, poachers would take them down in no time.

So they may persist in captivity for some time, but they are essentially extinct in the wild.

Q: What needs to be done to protect tigers in the wild?

Sharon Guynup: Tigers are in such dire straits that it will take coordinated, immediate effort to keep the remaining five wild subspecies from sharing the South China tiger’s fate—extinct in the wild. Tigers, their prey, and the remaining habitats that they call home all need protection, and the crushing demand for tiger products must be stopped—and that means shutting down tiger farms. I’ll go into more detail on each of these threats in the coming interviews.

NEXT Part Two: The Threats to Endangered Tigers


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Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered Tigers.com


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