The Year of the Tiger begins on Feb. 14, which should mean good things for the world. In Chinese astrology, tigers are known as bold and independent, good luck against fire and thieves.
But if the Year of the Tiger ends up being anything like every other year over the past few decades, it won't be very good for tigers themselves. The princely animals are among the most endangered species on the planet. In the wild, they number fewer than 3,000; their habitat, which once stretched in Asia from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, has shrunk by more than 90% over the past century, and it's shrinking still. "We once had more than 100,000 of these animals," says Sybille Klenzendorf, the director of the World Wildlife Fund's U.S. Species Conservation Program. "There's a real chance that we will lose this animal in our own lifetime."
Tigers are what is known as charismatic megafauna the sort of big, well-known animal that tends to be good marker of a jungle's ecological health and green groups are taking advantage of the Chinese new year to press for better protection. They face a battle on many fronts: tigers are threatened by deforestation, hunting and the illegal trade of their bones and other parts, which are used in some forms of traditional Chinese medicine, mostly for consumers in Asia.
But one of the most unexpected threats to the tiger comes here in the U.S., where there are more tigers kept in private captivity then there are surviving wild animals left in the world. Few laws oversee the private ownership of tigers in the U.S., and conservationists worry that captive tigers could too easily end up fueling the illegal global wildlife trade. "There are significant loopholes in U.S. laws that can allow tigers to be exploited," says Crawford Allan, the director of TRAFFIC North America, which tracks the wildlife trade. "We don't know what's happening to them."
In truth, conservationists aren't even sure exactly how many captive tigers there are in the U.S., although their estimate exceeds 5,000. That includes not just tigers in zoos and private wildlife reserves, but animals kept by private owners as pets, sometimes in terrible conditions. In 2003, a 31-year-old man in New York City was arrested after police discovered he was keeping an adult tiger (and an alligator) as pets in his Harlem apartment. Worse, in 2001, three tigers were found caged in the backyard of a Texas mobile home authorities discovered the animals only after one escaped and killed a three-year-old boy. "There could be a tiger across the street from you and no one would know until something happened," says Allan.
But the greater danger of captivity is to the animals themselves. Tiger cubs that are bought as pets it can be done online, legally are often abandoned once they get bigger and considerably less cute. Reserves and sanctuaries can take some of the unwanted tigers, but many refuges have been overwhelmed by demand.
There are also real concerns among conservationists that some private parks in the U.S. are raising tigers specifically for the global wildlife trade. Along with bones, tiger skins are coveted as ceremonial garb in some cultures, or as decoration. (Although the international trade in tigers and tiger parts is illegal, few countries have taken steps to actually enforce the ban.) "Unless we can crack down on the illegal trade and on poachers in the wild, tigers have very little chance of survival," says Keshav Varma, the program director of the World Bank's global tiger initiative.
Although laws in 26 states in the U.S. ban the private ownership of tigers, conservationists would prefer stronger regulations that would allow the government to track the population of tigers kept in captivity and ensure they are being treated humanely and not being farmed for parts. Most of all, the regulations would actually need to be enforced; in Texas, for example, there are some laws governing the private ownership of tigers, but they're rarely used, and conservationists believe there are more than 3,000 captive tigers in the Lone Star state alone. "The government should be able to track the captive population better, to ensure they're not being put into the illegal wildlife trade," says Allan.
Protecting tigers in captivity is one thing, but the bigger challenge is restoring their numbers in the wild. Deforestation and the ballooning human populations in Asia have chased tigers out of their native habitat. Yet the health of the tiger means the health of the planet. "If there is a tiger in the forest, it's a sign that the forest and the other animals in it are healthy," says Varma. "Tigers are the face of biodiversity." Hopefully, then, 2010 will truly be the tiger's year.