Tigers have captured the hearts of millions and are one of the lucky species about whom society has decided has decided to care. They fall into the category of “charismatic megafauna” alongside pandas, elephants, and polar bears. To get into that category is exceptionally rare. For most species, not enough people care about their plight to result in a change of circumstances for the species. Ironically, even though tigers are plastered on the cover of the gifts World Wildlife Fund gives to members, on shirts, jewelry, and a whole host of other things, the tigers still face a very real danger that has yet to be solved. Siberian Tigers are in particular danger.
Although Vladimir Putin claims to want to save the tigers, there are only 500 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild in Eastern Russia and the bordering areas. Along with encroaching human populations and deforestation (much of it illegal), a huge problem that is driving tigers ever faster towards extinction is poaching. Rangers in the tiger reserves in Eastern Russia are able to catch some of the poachers, but poachers still get through and drive the Siberian Tiger population down even more. For many tiger lovers, or anyone who cares about endangered species, a gut reaction is to hate those who are doing the poaching. What poachers do is abhorrent and seeing photos of the piles of confiscated tiger pelts enrages me. But Pavel Fomenko’s (WWF Russia Program Coordinator) comment helped me look at the issue differently. He said that seeing tigers in the wild is an indicator that society is functioning well.
I did not get the connection at first. Did he mean that is a sign of the ecosystem functioning well? Is he including tigers as members of society? He went on to say that if tigers are not being poached, it means that people have jobs and are able to take care of their families – so they do not need to be poaching tigers. I had a teacher who suggested that poachers killing rhinos could be justified because they did so in order to get more money to feed their families. He said that if he had to choose between killing a member of an endangered species for money and making sure his children could eat or not killing the rhino and letting his children starve, he would choose the former. When put this way, most people would agree that poaching would then be justified. Putting aside the poaching that is committed to fund other illegal activities, it is important to understand this “subsistence poaching.”
We are morally bound to take care of our families first. Many people would sacrifice a member of an endangered species, such as a tiger, for their families. While it is painful to think about, it would be justified. However, what if we can prevent people from ever needing to make this decision? If we can keep society functioning so that people do not need to resort to poaching, it would do a great deal more good than funneling money into anti-poaching activities. That approach is reactive and does not go to the root of the problem. It is time to play offense and start being proactive in our approach.
This is not to say that we should stop funding protection for these animals. It just means that we cannot ignore the needs of the people who live near the animals we love. Ecotourism has been a successful means of protecting species and promoting local economies. This might be one method of preventing people from turning to poaching because they would be destroying their own livelihood by killing the animals people come to see. Even if ecotourism would not be practical in the whole of the Siberian tiger’s range, it is time to get creative about sustaining a functioning society. We cannot solely dump money into defensive strategies for endangered species protection. We need to look at the broader picture and at factors which we do not always associate with animal conservation. We can punish poachers, criminalize poaching more, and spend huge amounts of money prosecuting them. However, in an ethical battle between choosing the tiger’s survival and a poacher’s family, the tiger never wins.
For more information on Tiger trafficking go here.