Species vs ecosystems: save the tiger or focus on the bigger issues?

Tiger farming

The reality of tiger farming. Image: Save the Tiger Fund

Raising money to conserve iconic species maybe diverting funds from wider issues such as preserving ecosystems and their services

Millions have been raised to protect tigers but does this help or hinder the efforts to prevent wider biodiversity loss by tackling habitat loss, climate change and pollution?

The star-studded media frenzy that was the International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg this Winter was an unprecedented international effort to save a single species, raising millions of pounds for tiger conservation and receiving pledges of support from top-level government officials – a rare triumph for conservationists, on a never-before-seen scale.

Although a positive outcome, it raises the question of whether allocating such huge amounts of funding - $332 million in the case of the tiger - to one species is really justified. Shouldn’t we be focusing efforts on preserving entire ecosystems rather than cherry picking charismatic species?

Michael Baltzer, head of WWF's Tigers Alive initiative, argues that by saving tigers you also save all the other species that share their habitat, and consequently entire ecosystems as well.  ‘As a top predator, tigers need highly productive ecosystems and these ecosystems need to be large and highly functional if they are to support the prey base that an expanding tiger population requires: they are an ‘indicator species’. 

‘These vast ecosystems are home to some of the most valuable biodiversity on earth and the services provided by these intact, healthy ecosystems (watershed protection, carbon sequestration, climate change adaptation,  etc.) are critical to millions of people across Asia. Saving the tiger therefore means saving so much more, and this is why it remains a priority for many. ‘

Jean Christophe Vie, deputy head of the IUCN's Species Programme says there isn’t much difference between the two approaches of species or ecosystem conservation. ‘If you want to save tigers you need to look at landscapes. Basically we are doing the same thing but with different packaging. The tiger is an emblematic species, it can mobilise people ... The species approach works; people can identify with it.’

Vie points to the million-dollar donation of Leonardo DiCaprio to the tigers, which he says he wouldn’t have given to preserve ecosystem processes or to do a landscape restoration project.

Pulling the plug on pandas

But Dr Ken Thompson, ecologist and author of Do We Need Pandas?, says that the ability of ‘celebrity species’ to capture the public’s attention is a double-edged sword. ‘It’s difficult to argue with the idea that threats to iconic, charismatic species help to focus public attention and make it easier to raise money. But the downside is that this encourages the belief that there is a TIGER problem or a PANDA problem, when in fact tigers, pandas and everything else (including us) are victims of the same mix of problems: habitat loss, overpopulation, war, corruption, climate change, pollution and plain human greed .’

‘Much as we like tigers,’ Thompson continues, ‘ it would be even easier to raise money if people understood the real problem, and that the casualties will not just be tigers, but us – our standard of living, and ultimately our very survival.’

Conservationist Mark Carwardine, presenter of the Last Chance to See TV series along with Stephen Fry, says we need both approaches. ‘In an ideal world you protect the entire region, the biodiversity, the habitat and all the rest of it. But the big problem when you talk about something like tigers is that we’ve left it until the eleventh hour,’ Carwardine says.

‘We’re doing fire brigade action in trying to protect some species; if we don’t have a combination of both then we’re going to lose some of the big megafauna like the tiger and the African lion.’  

But how funds are distributed between these two approaches to conservation is a contentious issue. Some environmentalists argue that organisations that raise money to conserve iconic species are diverting funds from wider issues such as preserving ecosystems and their services.

‘I think it is a problem,’ says Carwardine. ‘It’s a complex issue and something you have to take into account is raising awareness to generate money - that’s the biggest challenge, and is much easier to do with big sexy species than trying to raise money to protect habitat. It’s like Chris Packham’s comments on the giant panda.’

In a controversial 2009 Radio Times interview, wildlife expert Chris Packham suggested ‘pulling the plug’ on giant panda conservation, arguing that not enough habitat remains for them to survive, that the bamboo specialists have wandered down an evolutionary cul-de-sac and aren’t ‘strong’ enough to survive. Packham’s provocative suggestion sparked outrage among conservationists and the public alike, though some also supported his views.  

The argument can be extended to other species on the brink of extinction. In the case of the tiger, only a few thousand remain in the wild; numbers have declined by 97 per cent over the last century and only seven per cent of natural tiger habitat remains. The fate of the tiger is inexorably sealed, sceptics say. Should we pull the plug on the tiger, allow it to enter the annals of history with dignity and use the millions of pounds of tiger funding to tackle bigger issues such as climate change or ecosystem preservation? As a casualty of man’s voracious greed, the death of the tiger could even be the alarming reality check we need.

This is a tragedy we cannot afford to let happen, says Baltzer. It’s an emotive issue. People care about the tiger; it has long been a powerful wildlife and cultural icon, a flagship of what we stand to lose if we continue business as usual, he adds.

Tigers would soon be forgotten

But Vie doesn’t think the loss of the tiger would have a big emotional impact. He points to the recent extinctions of the northern white and black rhinos, who quietly slipped onto the pages of the history books. ‘I don’t think people learn from these things. I thought they could but look at Hurricane Katrina, the Russian fires, plenty of other disastrous events - all these things can be related more and more to biodiversity loss but it doesn’t seem to change much. People tend to forget.’

Carwardine agrees: ‘If we let the tiger go it would be headline news for one day if we’re lucky, and that would be it.’ If the tiger could so easily slip away unnoticed, why bother? Perhaps the money and efforts could be put to better use - pragmatic conservation of healthy ecosystems rather than emotional conservation of appealing creatures.

In Do We Need Pandas? Thompson argues that people need to understand how much their personal well-being depends on intact, functioning ecosystems, and that a piecemeal, species-by-species approach to conservation is simply impossible. ‘There are far too many species, nearly all of which are rare and far too many are endangered. Species we never even knew existed will go extinct while you are reading this,’ he says.

But these extinctions are a source of motivation for conservationists like Carwardine, who says this should spur us on to do more. ‘I think you have to try and protect everything for moral reasons but also for inspirational reasons’ he says. ‘For me, the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was one of the most scary things thats happened in the last 25 years. I do wake up some mornings and think 'god, we’re losing every battle,' but actually this motivates me even more. ‘

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