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Tilson, for his part, disagrees with the WWF's and other groups' focus on Asian medicinal practices, which he says are overrated as a cause of tiger deaths. In any event, he insists, hand-wringing is counterproductive when there is a real chance of saving the tiger: "In Sumatra alone, if they have 1,000 to 2,000 wild tigers, that is going to be more than enough to exist indefinitely in a healthy situation. Most wildlife managers will tell you we don't need to worry genetically or demographically with these kind of numbers. And I believe we have the capability of determining where they are, protecting them and securing them for the future. It just takes a lot of work. And that's what I do."
Skeptics will note that even if Tilson is entirely successful, he will help assure the future of only one of the world's remaining five tiger subspecies. Tigers on the rest of the planet still live in a tangle of poverty-ridden populations and politically unstable governments--Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Russia, all places where development pressure and economic desperation combine to make tiger preservation a secondary matter. Even Tilson concedes that lasting tiger preservation across all of the former tiger range is probably unlikely.
Instead, some tiger species may incur the fate of the South China tiger, which for the last 20 years has been seen only in zoos. (Just 40 years ago there were probably more than 4,000 South China tigers in the wild, but the Chinese government declared them pests and encouraged their slaughter.) On the other hand, tigers have surprised us before. Maybe a few South China tigers are still prowling their territory, to re-emerge suddenly one day--just as the wapiti, a kind of red deer thought to have been extinct since the 1950s, reappeared two years ago in a remote part of Tibet. Whether hiding deep in the forest or surveying you from a placid zoo exhibit, tigers remain enigmatic. Even Ron Tilson, who has spent the better part of 10 years camped out in tiger habitat, doesn't know all there is to know about them. And he's never seen a Sumatran tiger in the wild.
"That's the oddest part of this whole study," Tilson acknowledges. "In [Sumatra's Way Kambas] national park I have 12 people working in the field all the time. Every three days we walk 162 kilometers, to check the cameras--to change the film, change the batteries, make sure everything's proper. In this entire amount of time we have never seen a tiger in the field.
"We see their tracks. We see their urine and their scrapings. We see the dead animals that they've killed--and we don't see the tigers. We even have photographs of these tigers where we've set up a camera and the staff is there, we take a photo, and because it's time-coded, [it's clear that] sometimes within 10 or 15 minutes the tiger comes and photographs himself, urinates on the camera, and then walks away. So here I am, a recognized world authority on the Sumatran tiger, and I've never seen the damn thing.
"And I've almost gotten to the point where I prefer not to see one," Tilson says, sprawling in the chair at his Minnesota Zoo office and staring at the ceiling. "First, I don't want to be disappointed. And I know when we do see one it will scare the bejeezus out of us."