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Tigers on the Verge of Extinction

Once upon a time, tigers roamed the woods in Southeast Asia. They helped maintain healthy and well-balanced forest ecosystems. Unlike most other cats, tigers are very fond of water and excellent swimmers. This is a huge evolutionary advantage because tigers come across many rivers and lakes while patrolling the forest as their territory in search of prey animals.
Tigers spend most of their life as loners and claim big territories. Being on top of the food chain, tigers need large and highly productive ecosystems. They prey on different kinds of hoofed animals such as deer, serow, wild boars and cattle. But occasionally they also eat fish, crocodiles, leopards, civets, pythons and monkeys.

Tiger taking a bath. --Source: Mathias Appel - Flickr

Tigers are called umbrella species meaning that by protecting tigers many other species are also protected. When they disappear from their ancestral habitats, it is a clear indication that the ecosystem is in bad shape.
For hundreds of years tigers have been worshipped and admired for their great strength, grace, prowess and ferocity in many Asian cultures. They are referred to in various folklores, tales and myths even beyond Asia and have been a source of inspiration for writers and artists. Tragically this enshrinement does not protect tigers, but instead contributed to push them to the brink of extinction.
The severe decline of tigers begun in the 20th century and since 1969 tigers are declared endangered by the IUCN. Three out of nine subspecies are already extinct – the Bali Tiger in the 1940s, the Caspian Tiger in the 1960s and the Javan Tiger in the 1970s. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam where tigers still live today are called tiger range countries (TRC).
Nam Et-PhouLouey National Protected Area in the province Houaphan is the last retreat for the Indochinese Tigers in Laos. Photos of camera traps, footprints and genetic analysis of scats recently proved the presence of tigers on Lao territory. But despite the existence of protected areas in all TRCs, their survival is in danger.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorises the Indochinese Tiger as endangered meaning that the species is considered to have a high risk of extinction in the wild. Once the population of a species is to diminished to be able to maintain itself its extinction in the wild cannot be averted. Today, more tigers live in captivity than in the wild. But tigers born and bred in captivity cannot be released into the wild. Instead, tigers in captivity are mostly bred for their body parts being turned into potions that are falsely believed to enhance virility or heal other ailments.
Today’s rapid rate of biodiversity loss is driven by human actions such as habitat destruction, unsustainable use of resources or illegal hunting. Laos rich biodiversity is threatened by practices like over-exploitation of timber, illegal logging, expansion of agricultural areas, mono-cultures, shifting cultivation and slash-and burn practices as well as an unsustainable hunting and fishing.
Illegal wildlife trade contributes to the declining populations of several species in Laos, e.g. tigers and pangolins.  
Biodiversity is all about the interdependencies between species. Therefore, even small changes can have severe effects on ecosystems. Adding or subtracting a major predator in an ecosystem can trigger devastating cascading events. When top predators disappear from their natural habitats, it has severe consequences for the ecosystem.
Tigers keep herbivore populations in check so that the equilibrium between herbivores and the vegetation they feed upon is secured. Consequently, the loss of large predator species results in the uncontrolled multiplication of their prey species.
The sudden over-abundance of certain animals can have negative impacts such as excessive game browsing, disturbed tree regeneration and overgrazing. Subsequently, these changes will have an effect on the whole forest food web.
In Laos today, tigers as predators do not play a balancing role in forest ecosystems any more. Instead, hunters took over that role. As large and small predators such as civets, snakes or raptors are overhunted, their prey, e.g. rodents and pest, grow in excess. If this development continues, Lao forests will lose its ecological balance in the near future.
In 2016, a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Lao PDR’s National Animal Health Laboratory found more than a tonne of living and/or recently killed animals in seven markets in Laos that were surveyed three times. A sample of 1,937 mammals were offered for human consumption, 238 of which are classified as ‘threatened with extinction’ according to the globally recognised IUCN Red List. Nationally, all wildlife sold in the markets are protected under the Lao PDR Wildlife and Aquatic Law.
By protecting tigers and other endangered species, the Lao population would not only save magnificent animals for future generations, but also safeguard high-value forest ecosystems which are pivotal for the country’s survival.
This article has been contributed by ProCEEd (Promotion of Climate-related Environmental Education), a project supported by the Federal Republic of Germany and implemented by the Deutsche GesellschaftfürInternationaleZusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

(Latest Update
June 1,2017 )

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