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.

"Then we figure out that that's where we're going to fight the war. It might be that you say: 'You know, we don't even have 1,000 tigers, we actually only have 500. So we need to create more habitat.'" This is the critical moment where Ron Tilson, to quote from the motivational-speaker vocabulary, "breaks the box" and redefines a paradigm. "Most people in conservation, including me, are kind of in this rut," he says. "You just talk about what needs to be found out, and you're always in this 'We need more information' mode. I call this defining the problem. Conservationists can talk 'til the cows come home about defining the problem, but they can't step beyond that once they have defined them. And that is what I am starting to come to grips with. How do we solve the problem, period?"

Tilson's answer has a pleasant practicality to it: Just buy a lot of jungle and give it to the tigers. He began to view matters that simply, he says, during a conversation with a would-be financial angel, whose name and affiliation he refuses to divulge. "[He] came to me and said, 'I want to make a business proposition to you. How much will it take to secure the future of the Sumatran tiger? Just tell me how much money it would take.' I said, 'I think it would probably cost you about $20 million dollars, and maybe up to $40 million.' And he said, 'Okay, I can raise that, but there's one caveat: You can't fail. So tell me how you're going to do it.'"

The secret angel has yet to cough up the $40 million, but Tilson--dizzy with the fundraising successes of the past several years--speaks about the possibility of a Sumatran tiger renaissance with a real fire in his eyes. He's raised around $1.6 million for the project from U.S. sources so far, not counting $6 million pledged by Exxon over a five-year period that began last year. And while that might not seem like much, it's incredibly successful in the penny-pinching world of conservation. "A few years ago when we got a grant for $15,000, we were absolutely thrilled," says Traylor-Holzer. "Now [Tilson] just got half a million in the last month or two."

As for the reality of creating a vast tiger preserve in Sumatra, Tilson says that's the easy part: The island, he says, is full of cheap oil-palm plantations that could be converted back to jungle in almost no time. "The very forest we're working in is a biological experiment," he explains. "It was completely logged 18 years ago, and now it has one of the densest populations of tigers anywhere. It's diverse, abundant, vibrant. So I know that we can create habitat very quickly in the tropics. Maybe some people would say 10, 15 years is too far down the road. But I'm trying to take the approach that Dr. Seal taught me: You don't plan for your lifetime, you plan for several lifetimes ahead, for your children's children."

The genius of Tilson's vision, some of his fellow experts say, lies in using the tiger as the flagship animal for what is actually a far-reaching conservation campaign: Because tigers need a vast, undisturbed habitat, what's good for them is also good for other endangered species such as the sun bear, the clouded leopard, and the Malayan tapir (a piglike animal with a long, trunklike nose)--not to mention plants, fungi, microbes, and many other unglamorous species equally vulnerable to habitat destruction.

"People want to save a tiger," because of its cultural charisma, says Rich Block, vice president of Scientific and Program Development at the Indianapolis Zoo and a former WWF senior fellow. "But Ron has used the tiger to frame a conservation issue--what he's really doing is having an impact on the habitat. The tiger [provides] something that people can rally around, to see how you can protect the integrity of the place where these animals come from. Remember Clinton's mantra, 'It's the economy, stupid'? For all of us working in conservation, it's 'It's the habitat, stupid.'"

Of course, for every slogan there's a counter-slogan, and conservation campaigns can get just as heated as election battles. "There are folk who want to say the tigers will be gone in another couple years, the wildlife will be gone, blah blah blah," Tilson says. "That is something that is said a lot, and there are a couple of major organizations that use those kind of tactics for fundraising." Though Tilson doesn't name names, he might well be referring to groups like the World Wildlife Fund, which frequently warns that "within a decade, wild tigers could be totally extinct."

"That [statement] needs to be elaborated," concedes Ginette Hemley, WWF's director of international wildlife policy. "If we don't continue to expand our efforts and stick with long-term commitments; if we drop our guard today; certain populations could go extinct." The fund, Hemley says, now aims chiefly to reduce the demand for traditional medicines made from tiger parts. "The work that Ron is doing is a critical piece of the whole picture," Hemley says. "But we cannot just focus on habitat conservation alone."

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