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Save the Tiger: Climate Change and Humanity Threaten Remaining Population

Jul 31, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

Tuesday's International Tiger Day highlights the need for drastic action to protect tigers in the wild, which are increasingly at risk of being wiped out because of both humanity and climate change.

The day is meant to raise awareness of the dwindling population of this beautiful and exotic species. It was founded four years ago at the 2010 Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit, and since then has been celebrated every July 29, according to Blue & Green Tomorrow.

A century ago, there were hundreds of thousands of tigers roaming in the wild, but due to hunting and forest destruction there are now as few as 3,200, the National Geographic estimates, with three sub-species already extinct. And with all remaining five sub-species listed as endangered, conservationists worry that soon all the tigers will be gone.

Threats to the Big Cats

According to Blue & Green, some people worry that all wild tigers will become extinct in the next five years as threats persist. Deforestation continues to reduce their habitats, as seen in Indonesia where a study in June found 840,000 hectares of Indonesian forest had been cleared and is consequently pushing Sumatran tigers to the edge of extinction.

And if loss of habitat isn't enough, this is actually making the tigers more vulnerable to illegal hunting, their other biggest threat. Tigers are often victims of poaching, wanted by hunters for their valuable fur and body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference decided to take decisive action against the illegal tiger trade this past February when they met at a London conference. They agreed to strengthen law enforcement against the illegal practice, renounce the use of wildlife products from species threatened with extinction, and amend legislation to make poaching and wildlife trafficking "serious crimes" under the terms of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, according to a press release.

"Tonight we are here with a single, shared purpose - to use our collective influence to put a stop to the illegal killing and trafficking of some of our world's most iconic and endangered species," Britain's Prince William, who attended the conference, told guests in a speech.

"Never before has a group like this come together - in these numbers - to stop the illegal trade in wildlife. All of us in this room have a duty to make sure that tomorrow is a date that marks the beginning of the end of this despicable trade."

The summit talked of illegal trade in elephants and rhinos as well as tigers.

Illegal trade has also taken away tigers sources of prey, leading to food scarcity and reduction in numbers.

A recent study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) also found that rising sea levels due to climate change is a threat to tiger habitats. Large populations of Bengal tigers in Sundarbans, a forest on the cost of the Indian Ocean, could be destroyed by 2070 if sea levels continue to rise.

"If we don't take steps to address the impacts of climate change on the Sundarbans, the only way its tigers will survive this century is with scuba gear," lead author Colby Loucks, WWF's deputy director of conservation science, said in a press release.

"Tigers are a highly adaptable species, thriving from the snowy forests of Russia to the tropical forests of Indonesia. The projected sea level rise in the Sundarbans will likely outpace the tiger's ability to adapt."

The Sundarbans, which covers parts of India and Bangladesh, is home to between 250 and 400 tigers. Though their population numbers are just as estimate, tigers living is this forest reportedly represent as many as 10 percent of all the remaining wild tigers on Earth.

"The mangrove forest of the Bengal tiger now joins the sea-ice of the polar bear as one of the habitats most immediately threatened as global temperatures rise during the course of this century," added Keya Chatterjee, acting director of WWF's climate change program.

From the Wild to Captivity

According to the WWF, more tigers don't live in the wild, but in captivity. About 5,000 of these exotic animals, which can weigh up to 500 pounds, are kept in captivity in the United States.

"Most of the people who buy tigers are what you could call impulse buyers," Zoe Taft, the director of the Exotic Feline Rescue Centre in Indiana, warned via The Independent. "People who say, 'If I raise a cub, it won't bite me, will it?'"

One infamous incident in particular shows just how dangerous it can be to keep these wild animals in cages - especially when kept in private zoos.

In October 2011, exotic pet owner Terry Thompson committed suicide, but not before setting loose his dangerous menagerie into the local community in Zanesville, Ohio. First responders were forced to shoot more than 10 captive tigers and other animals.

In total six black bears, two grizzlies, two wolves, one macaque monkey, one baboon, three mountain lions, nine male lions and eight lionesses were killed in what has since been referred to as a massacre. But for conservationists, the biggest loss was the death of 18 Bengal tigers, one of the world's rarest and iconic creatures.

"As the Zanesville incident showed, it's critical for America to clear out captive big cats from our backyards. This is a matter not only of public safety, but also of preventing captive tigers from being fed into the massive illegal tiger trade driven by a booming black market for tiger products," said Leigh Henry, WWF Species Policy Expert.

One the first anniversary of this tragedy in 2012, a new law was introduced to Congress to ban the buying tigers from Americans other than those affiliated with accredited zoos or wildlife sanctuaries. Those who violate the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act will face up to five years in prison.

"It's a little hard to believe that there's a crazy patchwork of regulations governing people who try to keep wild cats as pets," US Secretary of State John Kerry, a backer of the bill, said in a release when it was submitted. "This bill will ensure that these endangered creatures are kept in secure, professional facilities like wildlife sanctuaries rather than in small cages in someone's backyard or apartment building."

Previously only nine states had laws preventing the keeping of wild animals such as tigers as pets. This new law - supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Born Free USA, Humane Society of United States and Big Cat Rescue - is a giant step towards protecting wild tigers from leading an unnaturally cruel lifestyle, and meeting the same fate as those killed in the Zanesville catastrophe.

International Tiger Day says people can help by donating or simply raising awareness and is supported by many organizations including, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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