The Misfortune of the Lion and Tiger

Modern man is destroying the world of living things and is the only one capable of halting this destruction.

It is hard to focus on the fate of wild animals during a time of natural disasters and wars, and when people are starving. Don't talk to us about tigers, elephants and monkeys, and let us worry about the human race, politicians say, while almost always remembering too late to save human beings. Stop feeling sorry for animals, and start pitying human beings, say many people who usually do not show any interest in human beings.

Modern man is destroying the world of living things and is the only one capable of halting this destruction. There is an urgent need for him to act quickly, otherwise within a few decades the planet will be left without large mammals like the rhinoceros, big cats and monkeys; they will only be found in small nature preserves and zoos. Saving the species in danger of extinction will become possible after dealing with human poverty and distress, because these accelerate the killing of wild animals for livelihood or food.

Last month, the Environmental Investigation Agency, which focuses on protecting wild animals, published a report on the markets in China where one can easily find hundreds of pelts of the scarcest tigers and snow leopards. On one street alone, 60 snow leopard skins were displayed for sale; only several thousand snow leopards remain in the wild.

The residents of China crave the fur for use in various rituals, and there is an abundant supply available. A tiger preserve in India is already depleted after all of the animals were hunted; among other reasons, the tigers were hunted to provide pelts to neighboring countries. The tiger population in four other preserves has also been nearly depleted. "If the fur trade continues, within five years the fate of tigers in the wild will be sealed," noted the spokeswoman for the agency.

The lion, the cat family predator considered relatively plentiful and far from danger of extinction, also faces trouble. According to the nature magazine Oryx, large concentrations of lions remain in only a few countries in southeast Africa. In the west and center of the continent, fewer than 2,000 lions remain.

Last month, an international fund for rescuing monkeys published the first world atlas of large monkeys. According to the atlas, the continued destruction of habitats and hunting (some of which is for food) seriously threatens most of the habitats of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos (miniature chimpanzees). The orangutan will lose nearly half of its natural habitat during the next five years.

Saving wild animals requires a direct and uncompromising fight against hunters and criminal organizations that trade in fur. It also requires prohibiting ritualistic practices that maintain cultural tradition, but today threaten the extinction of the large mammals.

This fight should not be separate from the effort to wipe out world poverty. There is a direct link between the fate of wild animals and economic and social reforms and international assistance that raises standards of living. If people are given food and water, they will not go into the forest to hunt monkeys for food. If there are sources of employment and residents are involved in projects of ecological tourism, they will lose interest in killing tigers and leopards.

In Kyrgystan, an international organization for nature preservation has begun to assist local residents in selling artwork, and it is paying them for every year in which they refrain from hunting snow leopards. In India and Nepal, "ecological corridors" are being planned that will enable isolated tigers to move from one area to another. The residents of the region will not have to be relocated, and they will be offered incentives to plant trees in these corridors.

It is hard to remain optimistic when considering the pace of extinction and the complexity of the problems that must be confronted, but there is still something to fight for and preserve. Governments and nature protection organizations have succeeded in the past in saving rare species from situations of near extinction, sometimes by protecting isolated nature preserves and the last remaining pockets where endangered species live. And who knows, perhaps the priorities of the human race will soon change, and it will devote more resources to protecting the creatures it is annihilating.