Tigers' Keepers

A real-life fairy tale in which the wild beasts are hunted, the jungle is a plantation, and the knight in shining armor hails from Apple Valley.

Their genes, however, might. Today, free-ranging tigers are more in danger of becoming inbred than those in zoos: Roads and cities traverse more and more of their habitat, creating ever-smaller tiger enclaves whose inhabitants mate only among themselves. Experts hope that if genetic material from zoo animals--including, perhaps, Zara and Globus's future offspring--is injected into those small groups, the result will be healthier populations. In return, the wild tigers will provide the skills Zara and Globus's great-grandchildren will need to survive in a world without regular snacks of horse loaf.

But none of that can happen if those future tigers don't have a place to live. That's why Tilson has moved his focus from breeding zoo tigers to conserving, and possibly expanding, the habitat of their brethren in the wild.

In the early 1990s, Tilson found himself back in Indonesia, working to set up the first in a series of partnerships under his Adopt-a-Park program, which pairs well-off Western zoos with their counterparts in the Third World. The Minnesota Zoo was joining forces with Java's Ujung Kulon, a critical rhino habitat (next time you're in Java, look for the Minnesota, a boat park authorities use to patrol for poachers). But Tilson was thinking tigers: Java's own tiger subspecies had gone extinct just 20 years ago. But on the nearby island of Sumatra, several hundred tigers survived. It was this population, Tilson decided, that would become his most ambitious project yet.

The Sumatran tiger isn't as big as its Siberian cousin; its fur is a brighter orange, and its range tends to be smaller because of a denser prey population. Its favorite food are wild pigs, deer, and monkeys. And while tigers in preserves elsewhere in the world have become accustomed to people, the Sumatran does its best to avoid humans: "About the only way you really know when tigers are around is when you see them, which in our case is hardly ever," says Tilson. "Though you do see the tracks, and you often come to places called scrapings where they defecate or urinate--and they urinate a lot."

Tilson set about his project methodically. He raised funds from Western institutions, obtained the many permits required by Indonesia's government, and put together partnerships with Indonesian researchers, park officials, and rangers. The result was a unique program aimed at serving both Sumatra's tigers and their human neighbors.

"There are three ways of dealing with tiger conservation," says Tilson. "One is just understanding what their needs are, which is a biological question, and we've pretty much got that figured out. The second is protecting them from poachers; that's been worked out by the people in rhino conservation." (Since poachers only earn a fraction of the market price of endangered-species parts, frequent patrols deter them, Tilson says: Their prey may be valuable, but it's not worth risking extreme hardship.) "The third one, and this is the toughest, is building a sense of harmony between people and tigers when they share the same resources."

The Sumatran Tiger Project currently has two main parts. One is a detailed exploration of the needs of the people living in tiger habitats to determine what they need to exist in reasonable harmony with the animals. Findings so far, Tilson says, suggest that "there is already a conservation ethic among the people who live there. They value wildlife, they understand its relationship to their cultural and biological heritage, and they don't want to see it all gone."

Ultimately, Tilson and other researchers envision a partnership between local residents and wildlife. Philip Nyhus, a St. Olaf College instructor and the community conservation coordinator of the Sumatran Tiger Project, cites a recent case in which the Minnesota Zoo Foundation, through the Adopt-a-Park program, worked with Sumatran villagers looking to keep elephants from a park out of their farm fields. In return for funding to complete a ditch, Nyhus says, the residents "agreed to try to help reduce the amount of people going into the park illegally to collect wood and grass, or fish and hunt." Nyhus says it's that kind of cooperation that could ultimately create a sustainable habitat for both people and tigers.

The other part to Tilson's project--a detailed census of Sumatran tigers--is proving trickier. For the past two and a half years, a team under his supervision has been rigging the island's forests with cameras that work like burglar alarms, automatically snapping time-coded pictures when a large animal breaks an infrared beam. In one area, the researchers have become so familiar with the local tigers they have assigned names to some 30 of them; they can tell them apart, Tilson says, because of the patterns of their stripes, each as unique as a fingerprint.

Having surveyed more than half the Sumatran habitat, the team now estimates that there are some 450 wild tigers on the island. "In another year we will know all of the habitat," says Tilson. "We will know how many tigers are in those areas, and then we can ask: How many tigers do we need for the future? We need about 1,000 to 2,000 tigers living naturally, so we simply look at a map and draw lines and add up until we get to 1,000 tigers.

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