Letting Go of the Tiger

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By Matthew Hardcastle
BU News Service

The tiger is an ambiguous figure, at once a powerful icon and a threat to livestock and people. Yet this majestic beast is well on its way from being mythologized to becoming an actual myth. Charitable organizations spend five to six million dollars a year to stave off its extinction, but wild populations have fallen to under 4,000 individuals. It may be time to give up on the tiger.

The fight to save the tiger embodies a “flagship species” model of conservation that selects a single species to be the public face for a particular habitat or group of organisms. The animals chosen are usually charismatic and iconic, like the elephant, the polar bear, the panda, or the whale. Animals selected in this way are often kept in zoos, as part of a captive breeding program or more often as an “ambassador” to raise awareness for conservation.

Restoring the tiger would bring balance back to their old habitats, but the barriers to achieving this goal are considerable. The tiger was once an apex predator in India and Southeast Asia, exerting top-down control across entire ecosystems. Today, it inhabits only 7 percent of its historic range. Groups working to save the tiger butt heads with government bureaucracy in tiger countries.  And urban development is an inexorable tide of habitat fragmentation.

While flagship species have undeniable appeal, singling them out for protection often distracts from other critical ecological issues. And some valuable ecosystems don’t harbor any flashy mascots, like the mountain streams of Appalachia. Rather than focusing on glamour species, conservation biologists are now selecting species with a focus of preserving biodiversity, a measure of the number and abundance of species in a given area, and a good indicator of ecosystem health. After all, saving the tiger but not its home and food sources would relegate the survivors to living only in zoos and scrupulously managed reserves.

Still, estimates used to approximate biodiversity tend to fail when modeling species as rare as the wild tiger. There’s no way of knowing whether current management strategies are working at all. This doesn’t mean that all conservation efforts are fruitless, but public money may be better spent elsewhere.

Captive breeding programs in zoos lack the capacity to ever restore tigers to the wild. They are in a better position to conserve uncharismatic species, like the pygmy rabbit, spotted stoat, and hellbender. These beauty pageant losers could be brought back from the brink of extinction in someone’s basement, restoring their roles in natural ecosystems.

The world’s ecosystems, charismatic or otherwise, provide environment-stabilizing services including water purification, soil fertilization, land management, and pest control. Together, the economic benefits of these services exceed the combined GDP of the whole human species. Shifting our focus to a group of organisms facing manageable levels of risk could preserve more ecosystem services than the tiger alone ever provided.

The wild tiger may well be past the point of no return, but the Quixotic quest to save it can teach us valuable lessons about setting priorities in conserving biodiversity. We do not treat all species as equals. If we temper this natural bias with a focus on ecological importance and manageability of risk rather than mass appeal, we will be well on our way to optimal returns on our investments.


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