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Essay: India’s endangered tiger species – Bengal tiger

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According to Hunter and Marshall (42), the plight of the tiger is mirrored by the fact that it has topped almost every annual list of the world’s most endangered animal species for the last 10 years. The list, which is compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), provides a comprehensive insight into the current numbers, conservation efforts, future prospects and other aspects that are typically associated with endangered species. These efforts are validated by the fact that the tiger has seen its population dwindle considerably since the 20th century, when rampant hunting and misconception regarding its ecological value resulted in the decimation of its numbers in various ecosystems across the world (Rocheleau 19). This paper will discuss and examine different perspectives and issues surrounding India’s endangered tiger species.

Overview

Also known as the Indian tiger but commonly referred to as the Bengal tiger, it numbers over 2,500 in the wild, making it the most abundant among tiger subspecies (Jalais 25). Currently, it is classified as endangered on the extinction risk scale. Its natural habitat includes mangroves, such as the Sundarbans, dense forests, lush grassland and other ecosystems that typify India’s environmental imprint. As a matter of fact, the Sundarbans, which is one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world, is the world’s only mangrove habitat for the tiger species (Hunter and Marshall 13). Unfortunately, this ecosystem is also hugely threatened by humans and other natural phenomena, including destruction and climate change, which has instigated an unexpected and rapid rise in sea levels.

In the 1970s, after the extinction of its tiger population became a global concern, the Indian government established designated reserves and preserves that stabilized numbers (Karanth and Nichols 71). However, poaching still poses a huge threat to the Bengal tiger, especially due to growing demand for tiger skin, fat, penis, teeth, bones, bile, eyes and brain. A ready and expanding market is available all across Asia, but mainly in China, where these parts are treasured for their cosmetic or medicinal value. According to Rocheleau (31), males range between 8 and 10 feet in length and can tip the scales at between 440 and 650 pounds. On the other hand, females can measure to 10 feet, but weigh considerably less at between 220 and 400 pounds. It is worth noting that the color of the Bengal tiger is the base color for all white tigers, meaning that white tigers’ coats are an adaptation of the Bengal tiger’s; it has been observed that some tigers have white coats plus or minus black stripes (Jalais 83).

Besides being nocturnal, wild Bengal tigers are also strict carnivores whose diet comprises young elephants, goats, livestock, water buffalos, young rhinos, rabbits, wild boars, badgers and deer, among other mid sized animals (Clark 29). In the zoo they are sustained through meat from chicken, kangaroo, horses and other animals about five days weekly; the rest of the days they can be fed bones and other nourishment. The tiger consumes between 40 and 60 pounds of meat in one setting, whereupon it goes without eating for several days. The tiger usually kill their prey and then drag them to hideouts where they can eat without distraction. According to Mazumdar and Saha (67), this behavior stems from their solitary nature; in fact, they are so territorial that they are most spotted together when mating or fighting. They usually mark their loci with scents to prevent intrusion from other tigers. Some tigers kill and eat humans, but this is extremely rare unless they are too sick or injured to hunt, or when their usual prey are inaccessible – through poaching or loss of habitat.

Although there is no specific season for mating, Bengal tigers tend to breed between the months of November and April. Hunter and Marshall (79) state that females can give birth when they are 3 or 4-years-old, while males typically take 4 years to mature. Following a gestation period that is 103 days long, a litter comprising between 2 and 5 cubs is produced. The cubs will live with and are completely dependent on their mothers, first for milk in the first 6 to 8 weeks, and then for meat when they are about 18-months-old (Karanth and Nichols 57). At this stage, they can start hunting but will still be mothered for up to 3 years and then they leave to become territorial.

Current Threats

As previously mentioned, the Bengal tiger is presently categorized as endangered, a classification that has been necessitated by threats such as poaching, loss of prey, human-wildlife conflict, and loss of habitat. Mazumdar and Saha (84) contend that although the illegal wildlife trade has been vetoed in India, tigers are still highly valued for aesthetic, medicinal and symbolic purposes. At present, the poaching menace is very concerning and is considered to be the biggest immediate danger to the remaining population of Bengal tigers. Loss of prey is strongly correlated to loss of habitat and poaching, because apart from their ecosystems being destroyed by humans, ungulates such as deer and antelopes are also hunted for their meat, skin and antlers (Clark 52).

As their numbers decline, Bengal tigers find it increasingly difficult to find regular food supplies, compelling them to clash with humans or diversify their food sources; both of these scenarios cause their deaths directly or indirectly. According to Karanth and Nichols (46), the human-wildlife conflict between Bengal tigers and humans is well-documented in India, where villagers and domestic animals are attacked by tigers looking for food or straying out of their natural abodes because of loss of habitat. The consequence is that they are either killed or injured, leading to immediate or delayed death as they are unable to hunt or defend themselves (Jalais 37).

Why should the Bengal tiger be conserved?

According to WWF-India (1), like all other tiger subspecies, the Bengal tiger is an apex predator. The mere fact that it sits at the top of the food chain means the Bengal tiger plays a critical role in maintaining ecological balance not only in the ecosystems it inhabits but also all across India. It does this by actively regulating the population of the animals it feeds on, which are mostly ungulates, passively ensuring that equilibrium is upheld between herbivores and vegetative matter. WWF (1) illustrates this point by emphasizing that saving one Bengal tiger equates to conserving about 25,000 acres of biodiverse forests. The existence of a tiger in any habitat can be used as an indicator of the wellbeing of that ecosystem. Consequently, its endangerment means that India’s biodiversity is also under threat and, according to WWF-India (1), the extinction of the Bengal tiger will coincide with the collapse of their respective ecosystems. For instance, the extinction of Mauritian Dodos paralleled an end to the regeneration of a species of the Acacia tree.

What is being done?

WWF has been at the forefront of campaigns aimed at sensitizing the public and organizations on the criticality of tiger conservation and the perils of its extinction. For instance, according Clark (39), it has gone as far as collaborating with other entities, including soliciting endorsements from celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been part of WWF’s Save Tigers Now campaign. Besides goodwill and public support, such lobbying also attracts financial and political backing that are desperately needed in efforts to protect tigers in general, conduct research, and produce materials such as documentaries, movies and publications. WWF has also sought commitment from other organizations and governments to increase the population of wild tigers twofold through sourcing funds to stop poaching in the 12 most critical tiger habitats as well as destruction of ecosystems such as the Sundarbans (WWF 1).

The WWF has boosted anti-poaching initiatives by partnering with local, regional and international bodies, including TRAFFIC and the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), to prevent the sale and trafficking of tigers as well as tiger products through funding and logistical support for designated activities (WWF 1). It set up a branch in India – WWF-India – that campaigns for, among other goals, stopping of the illegal wildlife trade in relation to the Bengal tiger and other endangered species. Together with its parent organization, WWF-India supports data collection, community-based conservation programs, local chapters, and law enforcement. WWF also supports the adoption of clean energy, such as biogas in India’s rural areas; this reduces over reliance on wood fuel that motivates destruction of the Bengal tiger’s habitats, minimizes human-wildlife conflict, and strengthens local climate change initiatives (WWF 1).

Conclusion

Based on the evidence provided in this paper, it is apparent that although the Bengal tiger has been accorded more attention in recent times in terms of conservation, research, breeding, awareness and coexistence with humans, it is still not out of the woods yet. The WWF, together with other stakeholders such as the Indian government and international conservation agencies, should invest more resources and time into ensuring that the Bengal tiger is not only protected but also thrives. Lessons can also be derived from approaches employed in attempts to protect the Siberian tiger, which have proven increasingly successful over the years. In recent times, it has been reported that India’s tiger population is rebounding, meaning that previous efforts are starting to pay off. This should inspire native Indians, the Indian government and the WWF to push on in the quest to intensify the conservation of a species that is unlikely to be revived once it has gone extinct.

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