Wild Tiger Populations Stabilizing, Groups Say

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Efforts to curb demand for tiger products in China, the United States, and other markets appear to be gaining traction, according to the Save the Tiger Fund. World Wildlife Fund officials have been working with the Chinese government to address that country's demand for tiger-derivative medicinal products. "We have seen a major shift in attitudes at the highest level of government that is having a big impact," said Hemley.

In eastern Russia, poachers were killing between 50 to 70 Siberian tigers a year, according to the Save the Tiger Fund. In 1994, only 200 to 250 of the tigers remained in the wild by some estimates. The rapid population decline prompted some conservationists to take extreme measures to staunch the loss.

Steven Galster, the conservation law enforcement specialist, working independently at the time in eastern Russia, hired former Russian soldiers to break up poaching rings. He later established community outreach programs designed to raise awareness and support for tiger conservation.

Galster's efforts, coupled with those of the Russian government, local residents, and outside conservation organizations, appear to have stabilized the Siberian tiger population in eastern Russia today. Tiger poaching in the region had declined by as much 60 percent by the late 1990s, according to estimates by the Save the Tiger Fund. The World Conservation Union estimates that there are between 360 to 406 Siberian tigers in the wild today. Some put that number slightly higher. An additional 500 Siberian tigers are held in captive breeding programs in zoos around the world.

Lost Habitat

If poaching has been a lead punch, habitat loss has been a following blow in a one-two combination that has pummeled wild tiger populations in past years.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra today, wholesale logging of commercial forests for tropical timber continues at a staggering pace. Newsweek reported last year that at the present rate, commercial forests on the island would be logged out by 2005. The impact of this widespread loss of habitat on the native Sumatran tiger, which by some estimates numbers no more than 400 cats, would be grave, biologists say.

But despite such extreme cases, conservationists at this week's panel see many opportunities to protect remaining tiger habitats around the world. The landscapes where the tiger are found today are the most ecologically complete ecosystems still intact on the planet, said John Seidensticker, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

"If we're able to protect the existing wild areas we have left, we can increase the world tiger population ten-fold," said John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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