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2010 is Not the Year of the Tiger

On February 14, 2010, the Chinese “Year of the Tiger” began. The thing is, it’s not. It will never be the Year of the Tiger until we have adequate space and protection for them in the wild and a real understanding of the problems they face in captivity.

There will be those who recently read and were reassured that there are 6000 tigers in captivity in China. That’s almost double the entire wild population! Along with the 3000 or so Tigers kept in private hands in Texas alone, it really seems like the tiger has nothing to worry about. There are tigers elsewhere. It is not just Texas in the US, as it is estimated that there may be as many as 5000 “American” tigers. Every other country also has its quota. Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and the Middle East all have Tigers. There are lots and lots of Tigers.

The Tiger is threatened not only by habitat destruction and poaching but also by irresponsible breeding in captivity. There is one species of tiger and six surviving subspecies. They are the Bengal Tiger Panthera tigris tigristhe Amur Tiger Panthera tigris altaicathe tiger of South China Panthera tigris amoyensisthe Indochinese Tiger Panthera tigris corbettithe Sumatran tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae and the Malayan Tiger Panthera tigris jacksoni.

Three other subspecies, the Javan tiger Panthera tigris sondaicathe Bali Tiger Panthera tigris balica and the Caspian Tiger Panthera tigris virgata they have disappeared in the last sixty years or so.

Today there are only about 3200 Tigers in the wild divided in varying numbers between Malaysia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In the reputable, good zoos of the world, genuine sincere efforts are made to keep these subspecies separate. Each has its own study book and the available gene pool is managed by genuine caring professionals with the long term future of that species or subspecies in mind. No one is kidding that any but a small number will ever be released into the wild, if at all, while the problems in the wild still exist. Zoos today are looking up to a hundred years ahead to a period in which we currently cannot predict the state of the planet.

Subspecies held in captivity are instantly recognizable as Tiger even to the untrained eye. Place them in adjacent enclosures and the subspecific differences become apparent. These are animals that have been shaped by nature for many thousands of years. Time has obliterated weak features. These are animals that have naturally been selected by nature to survive in their environment. At one end we have the small dark Sumatran shorthair Panthera tigris sumatrae ideally suited to the dark tropical rainforests of Sumatra. In the other we have the large, light colored and long haired Amur Tiger Panthera tigris altaica which is adapted to the snowy wastes of Eastern Russia. It is what it is because of natural selection.

Within managed captive Tiger populations, no money changes hands. Tigers are moved between collections for the appreciation and welfare of the population as a whole. Breeding pairs are carefully selected. An unnatural choice made by understanding nature’s choice. Reproduction is limited with the health and welfare of both the animals and the population being important. Parenting is one of the main issues.

Outside of the famous zoos of the world we have the bad zoos and tiger farms that do not consider the subspecies of tigers or any other animals for that matter. All they really care about is having a tiger or tigers. They breed brother to sister from mother to son. They pay no attention to crossing a Bengal Tiger Panthera tigris tigris with whatever other subspecies may be available. No records are kept. The more babies they can produce the happier they are. No one knows or cares about such collections. Yet these parties have the audacity to justify their crimes and talk about conservation and re-introduction programs when they have no clue about either idea. What is really sad is that in some countries even the wildlife department officials do not understand. There is a real danger that some of these animals will actually be released by people working together under the assumption that as they are striped, so is a Tiger, so it must be OK. Is not.

No one in their right mind would release the Polar Bears Ursus maritimus in jungles of Malaysia or Malaysian Sun Bears Helarctos malayanus in arctic wastes. It would be equally crazy to think of releasing hybrids of the two into any environment. It would clearly be inappropriate. The example may sound a bit extreme, but it’s not that far off what some of these disreputable collections are doing and talking about. They even cross Lions with Tigers (Ligers) and Tigers with Lions (Tigons). We know that such hybrids could be bred in captivity for over a hundred years. What exactly are they trying to prove? Where on earth do they expect to release such animals?

There are those who argue that subspecific tiger crosses can introduce “hybrid vigor” into a population. The fact that it has already been done in some cases by people of repute does not make it right. It is just as easy to view such an act as genetic pollution and a dilution of the necessary natural qualities that nature took centuries to establish and hone. Tigers are no ordinary peas Pisum sativum. This is not one of Mendel’s experiments with plants. These are living breathing warm-blooded mammals.

Then we have this group of zoos that continue to breed White Tigers. Undeniably beautiful but so often mistakenly promoted as a rare and endangered species, which it most certainly is not. White tigers are completely messed up genetically and most carry defects like cross eyes and the like. They then go on to list them as rare or endangered. This would be kind of funny if it wasn’t actually a blatant lie. There are probably as many white tigers in captivity as wild normal colored tigers in the whole of India. To top it all off, they are almost all crosses between Bengal and Amur tigers. These animals will never be released into the wild by any competent authority.

There is a place for some white tigers in captivity because, after all, they are very rarely seen in the wild in India. A genuine natural white tiger in the hands of a zoo actively participating in an approved and regulated breeding program would be valuable not only genetically but also as an educational tool. White tigers as they exist today are nothing more than a commercial draw to draw in the public. Any other color would make the infamous zoo, as long as it’s not natural.

The real threat to the world’s Tigers is not just the problems they face in the wild (although these should not be dismissed as extremely important) but from the vast unrecorded, unmanaged, genetically damaged populations held in captivity in tiger farms and zoos of the second and third class.

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