Tigers Fighting Back

Three biologists spearhead a campaign which believes that to save tigers you must first understand them.

Produced by NHNZ

Over the last century tiger numbers have plummeted by 95%. These majestic big cats, once widespread across Asia, now exist in just a few pockets in the most densely populated continent in the world.

Across Asia the fight to save tigers is being waged on many different fronts. Leading the charge are the intelligence gatherers: three men working in three very different countries. Their mission is to understand tigers, and their weapons are science and passion.

These projects are part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s quest to save tigers right across Asia, and to save tigers, WCS believes that first you have to understand them. So the field biologists work as nature’s detectives, finding out about the basic survival needs of tigers by determining what they eat, how they live and what type of habitat they prefer.

In the snowy vastness of Russia’s Far East, biologist John Goodrich heads up the Siberian Tiger Project. John and five Russian trackers follow the movements of eight radio-collared Siberian tigers living within the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, where prey is scarce and tigers are forced to travel enormous distances to find food. As well as tracking tigers on the ground and from the air, John and his team also track tiger kills to learn more about what’s on the menu for the big cats.

John and his team have gathered some sobering statistics in the eleven years the Siberian Tiger Project has been running — more than 80% of their radio-collared tigers have been killed by people. Two cubs were killed by cars on a road running through the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, and poachers operating along the same road killed another five females. Encouragingly, since an anti-poaching team employed by the Reserve began patrolling the road, there have been no more deaths.

But in other parts of Russia poaching is still a problem. John has to carry out a health check on a tiger cub that was found half-dead and suffering from hunger and frostbite after its mother and siblings were killed by poachers.

Four and a half thousand kilometres to the south-west, Tony Lynam journeys up a remote river to visit a project on the Thailand’s southern border. In contrast to the Russian Far East, Balahala is dense rainforest and faces a variety of different challenges. Thick forests, low numbers of prey, and therefore few tigers, make surveying tigers here extremely challenging. In fact, Tony has never seen a tiger in the wild.

But Tony’s work has shown that these forests are in remarkably good shape. He visits a large herd of gaur – enormous wild cattle – feeding in the open, a sure sign that there is no poaching. This park is one of the few places in Indochina where Tony believes tigers have a fighting chance, and it’s all due to the protection provided by the Royal Border Patrol Police, who have a strong presence.

Tony and his WCS Thailand team work alongside local partners including the police and the Forest Department. They run a training programme at Balahala to help their allies better understand the animals they are trying to save. As part of the programme Border Patrol Police train Forest Department rangers in the self defence and arrest techniques needed to catch poachers, while the Forest Department teaches the police about the illegal wildlife trade.

The third project is taking place 2000 kilometres further west, in India’s Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Biologist Ullas Karanth has studied tigers in southern India for more than 14 years in an attempt to learn how many animals live here and how they fit into the forest’s ecosystem. Because the dense forest cover makes the secretive cats hard to track, Ullas pieces together the puzzle by studying tigers’ prey and droppings.

Ullas and his team also set up remote cameras that use an infrared beam to trigger photographs of tigers as they walk past. They can then identify individual tigers by looking at their unique stripe marks — Ullas describes tigers as being like “big, bar-coded library books walking around.”

Bhadra Tiger Reserve is a park on the brink of recovery — Ullas believes that it has the potential to be home to three or four times as many tigers as it is now. Southern India’s forests are rich with prey such as sambar deer, spotted deer, wild boar and gaur, which can support dense populations of tigers. And now that 16 villages that used to exist within the park have been relocated, the tigers and their habitat have been left to recover.

With initiatives such as village relocation in India and the anti-poaching efforts of the Thai Border Patrol Police, combined with the natural resilience of the tiger, WCS believes that Asia could be home to as many as 100,000 tigers. This is a bold hope in a world where as few as 5,000 tigers may remain in the wild. This target will only be reached if the poaching of tigers and their prey is stamped out, and if enough people share the passion and determination of these three men.

Tigers: Fighting Back follows the incredible work of the men leading three key projects in the battle to save tigers, and learns why, despite grim statistics, WCS still has hope.

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