Minnesotans stalking the big cats
Asia's wild tigers are in big trouble -- their numbers are dwindling faster than ever. Halfway around the world, two Minnesotans are separately trying to help turn that trend around.
By KRISTIN TILLOTSON, Star Tribune
Last update: May 29, 2009 - 11:35 PM
Ancient Chinese proverb: Once you're on a tiger's back, it's pretty hard to get off -- without being eaten, that is. Twin Cities-based conservationists Ron Tilson and Dave Smith would agree, but for a different reason. They can't stop tailing tigers because they're both passionate about saving one of the world's most endangered mammals.
"The only three things that can kill a tiger are loss of habitat, loss of prey and poaching," said Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo. Unfortunately, all three of those threats couldn't be more serious than they are now.
As few as 5,000 tigers are estimated to be left in the wild, from 100,000 a century ago. About 60 percent of the forests where tigers roam has been lost in the past decade, which in turn reduces the large prey that tigers depend on.
Throughout Asia, particularly in China, the age-old belief that potions and powders made of tiger parts increase virility in humans continues to encourage black-market poachers.
Why do not one, but two prominent tiger champions live in Minnesota? It's coincidental, but both had local mentors who inspired them to switch courses from broader concerns and focus on tigers. Like two male tigers stalking abutting territories, Tilson and Smith's efforts are separate, but complementary: Tilson wants to bring a tiger subspecies back into an area where it is extinct, while Smith wants to restore natural habitat where tigers are already living.
For Tilson, considered one of the world's top tiger experts, the top priority is working with the Chinese government to reintroduce the South China tiger, the most at-risk subspecies, into the wild by combining two large nature preserves and releasing captive tigers. He ended previous efforts to stabilize tigers in Indonesia, because its government proved less cooperative.
"China offers a bright new hope," he said. "It will be either the savior or the slayer of the tiger in Asia."
Smith, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, has made many trips to Southeast Asian countries from Nepal to Cambodia, tracking wild tigers' behavior and territories with radio collars. Through CLAWS (Collaborative Lab for Asian Wildlife Studies) at the U of M, he advises advanced students from Asia, who return to their native lands as skilled wildlife-preservation advocates.
Smith's primary goal is to save habitat, without which the wide-ranging tiger has no hope of survival. He and his students also get farmers and rural villagers to feel invested in the tiger's future by appointing spotters who can help find and trap problem predators that kill livestock -- and sometimes people.
"Local people want to manage their own forests," he said. "That's good news for tigers."
No culture mythologizes and respects the tiger more than China's, where folklore dictates that the tiger and the dragon are responsible for nature itself. Yet up to 5,000 South China tigers were shot or trapped in the 1950s, after Mao Zedong declared them "pests" and put bounties on their heads. Tilson's plan, which will soon be under review by an international group of big-cat specialists, involves establishing four small populations in sites north of Macao and west of Hong Kong, part of their natural range.
Tilson describes China's relationship with the tiger in a yin and yang sense: "The tiger is hugely symbolic there, yet it is the only country in the Asian range outside of North Korea that doesn't have any wild ones left," he said. "The poaching is a big problem. They now see themselves as an emerging economic and industrial power, and they need to correct this, like they did with the panda. If someone is caught with a panda paw, he's executed the next day."
The government's eagerness to support such a plan is a dramatic turnaround, Tilson said. Several years ago, he joined a Chinese wildlife official he had befriended in trying to assess whether any wild tigers were left.
"When I concluded that no, there weren't, I was shunned for a few years," he said. "It used to be me pushing them; now it's the other way around."
Tilson inherited his affection for tigers from Ulysses Seal, an endocrinologist and Minnesota Zoo board member who used early computer modeling to manage tiger populations and advanced research on artificial insemination of female tigers. Tilson has followed in Seal's footsteps and far beyond, helping to arrange and record successful births among captive tigers in zoos worldwide in what is known as the International Studbook, a register of every zoo tiger's family line back to the original wild "founder" parents. Careful management helps to stem the inbreeding that threatens the health of small tiger populations.
"Everyone in the field knows that tigers are in deep trouble, and things are much worse now than they were 10 or even five years ago," Tilson said.
It was a fearsome man-eater that led to Smith's involvement with tigers. When his mentor, Mel Sundquist, reported that his Nepalese research partner had been taken out of a tree by a tiger (he survived, but was injured), Smith was tapped to fill in, and never looked back. He's been collaring and tracking tigers with radio telemetry since 1977, with more than 50 tigers, mostly female, collared to date. (They've also used a series of camera "traps" to record snapshots of wild tigers, but the often-fuzzy images can't give too much information on range, size or sex.)
The dangerous part of collaring a big cat is getting close enough to tranquilize it. First, they are lured in by young water buffalo or cows. If it's not possible to aim the dart from the safety of a tree or elephant's back, they are caught with a foot snare, made of aluminum cable and rubber tubing.
"That makes things exciting, because the tiger is conscious and not too happy," Smith said. "You've got to get within 8 or 9 meters, hold very still, and then another person off to the side suddenly distracts it so you can get the dart in."
These days, the radio collars are satellite GPS. From his office on the U's St. Paul campus, Smith can go to a website and find out where Female Tiger No. 9 has been in the previous five days. Lots of back and forth over the same short distance may mean she has a den of cubs; staying in one place for a day or more probably means a kill and feast.
Having done most of his recent work in Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal, Smith thinks that Nepal may be doing the best tiger conservation job of any Asian country so far, thanks to some grass-roots thinking.
"In 2009, we are finally realizing on a worldwide scale that too much consumption can't work forever," he said. "These villagers understood eco-service concepts back in 1996, before we were even talking about them. Now they've got more than 8 million people in 16,000 groups managing habitat, and tigers are a part of that. This idea of communities working together is reviving old traditions."