With the lunar Year of the Tiger well under way, various assessments show that only a few thousand tigers at the most are surviving in South and East Asia.
Tigers once ranged from Eastern Turkey and the Caspian Sea to the south of the Tibetan plateau eastward to Manchuria and the Sea of Okhotsk.
According to The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tigers were also found in northern Iran, Afghanistan, the Indus Valley of Pakistan, and the islands of Java and Bali.
Today, the Swiss-based WWF says that rampant poaching and unchecked habitat destruction have shrunk the tigers’ range by more than 95 percent.
At the beginning of the 20th century, wild tigers are said to have numbered some 100,000.
The total number of wild tigers has declined to as few as 3,200, with more than half of them to be found in India.
In India, it’s against the law to attempt to kill an endangered tiger except in self-defense or by the special permission granted by a wildlife protection act.
Offenders face a minimum of three years in prison unless the tiger was deemed a man-eater by a court.
Of the 13 “tiger-range” nations of the world, seven—Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—are located in Southeast Asia.
In 2010, the governments of 13 countries where tigers still roam met for the first time in St. Petersburg. There they committed themselves to a doubling of the population of wild tigers by 2022, the Lunar New Year of the Tiger.
Debbie Banks with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which also has offices in Washington, D.C., says criminal gangs capture wild tigers and sell their bones and pelts, which can be processed into luxury home décor items.
The bones are also sometimes used for medicinal purposes despite a lack of scientific evidence that this remedy works as claimed.
The largest markets for these items appear to be found in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Although the health claims associated with tiger body parts are dubious, the benefits of wild tigers to their surrounding environment are widely accepted by scientists.
According to the WWF, wild tigers “play an important role in maintaining the harmony of the planet’s ecosystems.”
Tigers prey on “herbivores,” such as cows, deer and sheep, which feed on forest vegetation. They thus help to preserve vegetation that can be consumed by humans.
The WWF also notes that tigers are “incredibly adaptable” and “can survive in vastly diverse habitats … under extreme temperatures.”
That characteristic gives some cause for optimism. The tenacity of tigers may be enough for the species to avoid extinction, if only humans stop killing them.
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