It’s easy to look at a single species and forget the rippling impact that specific group of animals has on everything around it. Plants, animals, rocks, minerals and water make up the ecosystems that support all life — including humans — and tigers are at the center of it all.
At the top of the food chain, tigers play a critical role in population control. As we know from copious other animal examples, when the number of predators drops, those they hunt overpopulate. In the case of the tigers, they keep the ungulate population in check. These are the hooved herbivores (e.g., deer, water buffalo, antelope, and pigs) that otherwise strip the land of plants if they are allowed to become too numerous. Without plants, everything dies. The other animals in the area can’t compete. The soil becomes unstable, erosion is high and the nutrient-base is stripped from the land. This scenario is exactly why it’s crucial we protect the tigers. It’s never about a single animal — it’s about an entire ecosystem.
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Moreover, tigers are a lynchpin in nine watersheds throughout their habitats. Watersheds are the area surrounding and leading to bodies of water. Inasmuch, the health of the entire area directly impacts the purity of the water sources animals and humans rely on. The nine watersheds in tiger landscapes directly overlap the water supply for 830 million people in Asia so it’s easy to see how saving the tigers equates to benefitting the human population too.
While it may seem like losing them is simply part of the circle of life, the truth is, they are primarily endangered because of human activity. Therefore, it’s up to us to reverse that damage. And they are endangered. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a multi-country commitment to tiger recovery started in 2010, called TX2, vowed to double the number of tigers by 2022. Now that the Year of the Tiger is here once again, we haven’t seen numbers double, but their efforts are starting to pay off with populations in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and China holding stable or slowly increasing.
However, other populations are in crisis. Obviously poaching is a big problem for the tigers, but there are many more ways humans are multiplying their challenges. Roads, housing developments and clearing of forests for agriculture and timber are a few ways humans are eliminating or segmenting tiger habitat.
To understand the impact, we must understand the animal. Tigers used to thrive with numbers nearing 100,000. Now there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 in the wild. These animals are mostly solitary, traveling and hunting alone over vast areas. With the intrusion of human activity, the traditional lands have been segmented by developments and deforestation, taking away an estimated 95% of their previous habitat.
Preserving this habitat is essential for the success of the tigers, as well as countless other resident wildlife species. Forests are carbon sinks, meaning they pull huge amounts of carbon from the air. In return, they provide the oxygen we breathe. One tiger habitat forest in Russia is estimated to pull in 130,000 tons of carbon annually. That means it’s drinking up the carbon emissions equivalent to those produced by 25,000 vehicles. That’s just one example that highlights how the habitat for tigers is a habitat for us all. Even if we take tigers out of the equation, restoring and protecting these vast forests is a powerful tool in the effort to reverse global warming.
Climate change is affecting tigers in a very specific way through rising water levels. The Sundarbans, an area of thick mangroves on the border between Bangladesh and India, is home to a group of tigers adapted to the unique ecology of the area. It’s the only coastal mangrove tiger habitat in the world and with water levels predicted to rise up to a foot in the next 50 years that and many other species are threatened. In addition, without mitigating the effects of climate change in the region, the loss of the mangroves means a loss in protection from storm surges and wind damage.
From the air to the water, from the forest to the savannahs, tigers are undoubtedly a keystone species. Human efforts to rebuild their habitat and protect them from further intrusion balances the ecosystem, reduces pollution, improves air and water quality and enhances diversity at every stage.
What you can do to help tigers
It’s up to all of us to pay attention when a species is in crisis. Keystone species such as the salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the jaguar in Panama, coral in the oceans and tigers in Asia are all interconnected in a world we share.
To support tiger protections, make sure your vote counts in matters that affect them, from poaching to agriculture to forest management. Participate in grassroots movements to restore habitats where they live. Be a responsible tourist. Adopt a tiger through the World Wildlife Fund or donate to a similar organization. Also be aware of the tiger trade and avoid all tiger products. Report poachers. Even reducing paper and paper product consumption in your home and office helps preserve their habitat and the entire ecosystem.
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