Radio Expeditions

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In New York today, one of the world's leading environmental groups - the Wildlife Conservation Society - is launching what it calls the Tigers Forever Initiative. The goal is not simply to halt the world decline in tigers, but to increase their numbers over the next ten years by a lot. To do that, the conservationists will focus not only on the tigers, but also on their prey and their human neighbors. For this National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview, I spoke with the Director of the Science and Exploration Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz.

Dr. ALAN RABINOWITZ (Director of Science and Exploration Program, Wildlife Conservation Society): At those sites where we feel we can have major influence working with the governments, we are promising an increase of at least fifty percent in the tiger numbers, measurable increase that we will monitor every year - fifty percent in the number of tigers over a 10-year period.

CHADWICK: There are - by your numbers - a little more than 5,000 tigers in the world today, 5,000 left.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: The ranges usually put it three to 6,000, and that's probably ballpark. We really have no idea of the exact number.

CHADWICK: So to increase that number by 50 percent in just 10 years, how do you go about doing that?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: The Wildlife Conservation Society's tiger sites comprises approximately - by our best estimate - a thousand tigers, about one-third to one-fifth of the world's currently known population of tigers.

CHADWICK: In parks and public conservation areas where WCS - either you're the managers, or you're there as researchers.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Right. Within those sites, we're picking four of our absolute best sites, calling them the top priority sites. Sites that contain approximately 600 of the thousand tigers. We will be keying in on the core areas of those sites and setting up monitoring - actual scientific and sociological monitoring - so that we'll be following the tigers, their prey, and we will also be following what the people are doing, what the poachers are doing, what the guards are doing. And we will be monitoring numbers and getting at the critical threats which are affecting those tigers in those core areas. To set up a model that nobody has ever done before - become accountable -actually show that if you address the critical threats which are hammering tigers, that you can easily increase tiger numbers.

CHADWICK: And what kinds of threats do you mean?

Dr. RABINOWITZ: There are two major threats right now to most of the tiger populations, depending on what area of the range you're talking about. One of the threats is the direct killing of tigers themselves. That's what most people are hearing about. Actually, a far greater threat to the tiger over most of its range is the hunters killing the tiger's food. Specifically, large prey such as sandbar deer and wild pig that the tigers need to survive and that the people are killing - not just for their own survival because that would be acceptable - but actually for the commercial market, to either sell for meat or to sell body parts into the traditional medicine trade. The loss of prey is what's creating what we call empty forest.

The empty forest syndrome. Areas of seemingly good tiger habitat which don't have tigers in them, even though those are protected areas in many cases, because the prey has been hunted out and those tigers have no food to eat. And they're just dropping in numbers slowly till they're twinkling out. You won't find many international conservation groups who will brag about, or even tell you that they're funding initiatives to go after local people to try to stop some activities that local people are doing. Or to be paying local people to be informing on other local people. But frankly, that's one of our most effective strategies is informant networks. Finding out who the primary hunters are, because it's usually not many people, it's usually a few key hunters who are tied into a commercial network.

The fact is tigers are still sliding towards extinction. We've got to - if we're going to save tigers, we've got to pull out all the stops and address some of the hard issues and actually get it why tigers are going down.

CHADWICK: Alan Rabinowitz, Director of the Science and Exploration program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Alan, thank you.

Dr. RABINOWITZ: Thank you, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Next up on DAY TO DAY, a drive through the desert to a place where angels may land a hundred bucks of gas. That story coming up next on DAY TO DAY.

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