Tigers | Asia (20th Century)


Siberian Tiger in the Minnesota Zoo by Jim Winstead retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimwinstead/78555369/.

By Kate Bolkin


The Anthropocene is a new geological epoch characterized by the permanent, global impacts and alterations that humans have made on the environment.  In the Anthrorpocene, humans have increased in population size, technological advancement, and capitalistic practices, which has consequently resulted in massive habitat loss, overharvesting, and exploitation of wildlife.  In the early 20th century, there were over 100,000 wild tigers throughout Asia. Today, scientists from the IUCN predict there are only about 3,800 individuals left in the wild due to poaching and human-caused habitat loss.   The overwhelming presence of humans has not only caused a rapid decline in wild tiger populations, but has also started the practice of putting them into captivity and distributed across the globe.  Today, there are nearly 20,000 tigers in captivity, 5,000 of which are in United States, thousands of miles from their native habitat.  Humans’ relationship with tigers demonstrates the commodification of lives, global movement of species, and attempts to “master” nature that characterizes Anthropocene.

Humans have commodified tigers in two ways—by using their bones for medicine and putting them into zoos for human enjoyment.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is over 5,000 years old and is the one of the biggest threats to wild tigers, second only to habitat loss.  Tiger medicine has been historically common amongst many Asian cultures that share their home with wild tigers.  An early 20th century medical text written by a surgical resident in Kelantan, Malaysia discusses using “the knee-cap of a tiger, bones of a dugong, bones of a goose…” and other animal parts to treat Yaws, a tropical skin disease.  Using tigers for medicine, exotic cuisine, and luxury decorative pieces (such as rugs and coats) has spread to other economically powerful nations that do not have wild tiger populations, creating an even bigger market for tiger bodies.  Today, the largest importers of tiger bones are Japan, United States, and South Korea, with China being the largest exporter.  Despite tigers being listed as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, tiger poaching is still a major issue.

As the global inequality gap widens, tigers are more at risk for poaching.  Most wild tigers inhabit rainforests that contain small, poor villages.  One tiger skeleton alone can provide more than the annual gross national product for one individual in East Asia.  The greatest sited reasons for local poaching is desperate need for food and income. As subsistence lifestyles become more difficult in a growing capitalistic world, villagers become more desperate to make a livelihood and can turn to joining or aiding highly illegal poaching gangs.  This multi-billion dollar tiger trafficking industry is a key example of the exploitation of poor lives and the commodification of wildlife to accumulate wealth driven by the Capitalocene.

Tigers’ lives are also commodified for profit in zoos.  The first evidence of “zoos” were collections of exotic animals owned by elite families.  Some date back to 2500BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Public zoos came about during the 18th century Enlightenment Period when scientists became more fascinated with wildlife and zoology.  The early days of modern zoos were predominately for scientific study and public intrigue.  Zoo-goers would pay a fee to see and learn about animals from around the world.  Despite the educational opportunities that zoos offer to spectators, there was (and in some cases, still is) little regard for the animals’ well-being.  Many suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and self-harm, which can be seen in captive tigers through pacing and excessive sleeping.  The transport, captivity, and exploitation of tigers in zoos is evidence of human imperialism over other species brought on by the Anthropocene.  Although zoos feed our desire for knowledge about the natural world, they also give us an entitlement complex that justifies tearing apart ecosystems by taking animals from their homes and displaying them in our own “order.”

Today, zoos contain animals from every corner of the earth.  In the image above, a Siberian tiger (found in eastern China and Russia) resides in the Minneapolis Zoo.  The ability to trade wildlife throughout the world and raise them in places thousands of miles from their native lands is a specific trait of the Anthropocene.  An important characteristic of this Anthropocene is botanical networks— the process of globally trading plants through collection, transplant, and commodification.  Through these botanical networks, humans have broken down the sanctity of species endemism to meet the needs of consumers around the world.  This system can also be applied to fauna as humans have gained the ability to collect animals from their native habitat, transplant them to new settings all around the world, and commodify their existence for human entertainment and education. 

Human political and scientific control over tiger populations exhibits Promethean aspects of the Anthropocene.  Increases and decreases in tiger populations are directly affected by governmental protections over tigers.   In the 1940s, Siberian tigers were added as an endangered species to the IUCN Red List with less than 40 individuals left in the wild.  In less than 40 years, Siberian tiger populations increased over 10-fold.  Tigers as a species had decreasing populations for the past 100 years, up until 2016 when conservationists witnessed the first increase in the global population.  Although this is a positive sign for tigers, Michael Baltzer, Head of the World Wildlife Fund Tiger Initiative warns that tigers are still very much endangered.  Specifically, he urges nations with weak conservation laws to make a change.  At the 2016 Global Tiger Forum, he stated, “Southeast Asia, in particular, is at imminent risk of losing its tigers if these governments do not take action immediately”.  The powerful influence that politics has on the existence of tigers shows the effects of an Anthropocene.  Only in this epoch can human spheres have such a profound impact on the natural world.

In order to save tiger populations, many have taken action on a genetic level.  Captive breeding is the process of mating genetically diverse individuals in a captive setting to decrease inbreeding affects when population size of an animal is low. These programs are carried out by many zoos across the globe.  Captive breeding is highly complicated and requires extensive genetic and animal behavioral monitoring, but can be successful.  A 2008 study tested 105 captive tigers of various subspecies for genetic diversity and found that they all had considerably higher diversity than their wild counterparts.  Captive breeding highlights a Naturalist perspective on the Anthropocene that credits scientific advancements with solving negative anthropogenic effects on the natural world.  However, the pursuit of mastery over nature that comes with the Naturalist school of thought has some major flaws.  Even if a group of tigers is correctly bred in captivity, reintroduction has a low success rate.  Tigers born in captivity often don’t know how to establish territories or raise cubs successfully.  The biggest challenge with the re-wilding process is lack of space due to anthropogenic deforestation for agriculture and development. Ten breeding tigers need approximately 1,000 square miles of territory, which is becoming scarcer as the Anthropocene worsens.  Overall, many think that captive breeding is the solution to species extinction, but it is useless without habitat conservation efforts and is often unsuccessful.  The many imperfections behind captive breeding remind us that anthropogenic technological progress still must succumb to laws of nature.   

The story behind tigers in the modern world reminds us of the massive impacts the Anthropocene has on entire species of wildlife.  Harvesting their body parts for medicine, transporting them around the world, and putting them in captivity truly shows the mastery humans have gained over an animal that used to hunt our ancestors as prey.  However, in recent decades, we have begun to acknowledge our mistreatment of tigers and work towards rebuilding their populations with governmental protections and captive breeding.  It is essential to the future of wild tigers that we stop viewing them as a commodity and start accepting them as our fellow earthlings.

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