Terror in the Night


Tigers are beautiful, adorable, and absolutely terrifying to watch as they hunt through our back yard.


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Some Amur tigers — a/k/a Siberian tigers — are the world’s biggest cats, averaging almost 400 pounds and standing 4 feet high at the shoulder. Only a few African lions can match them in size and weight.


This humane attitude is relatively new in the long history of people and tigers, but it is very necessary.

While Amur tigers have made a comeback from the 20 or 30 individuals that remained in the 1930s, the 600 or so living in the Russian Far East today are still not a lot. This species could go extinct yet, if the yearly mortality rate is higher than 15 percent. (Loveridge et al.)

And tigers do get poached for pelts and traditional Asian medicine, as well as being hit by motor vehicles or succumbing to the rigors of outdoor life in one of the harshest winter environments on Earth.


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Road hazards in Siberia are a little different from what most of us are used to. And you’d better believe that people stay with their car if it breaks down!


So when one of these hungry night-stalkers comes nosing around the dogyard, it’s likely to end up caged and transported for eventual release far, far away. Lethal control is no longer an option here.

This approach to problem wild cats works, at least in the short term, in most advanced countries, including the United States (although, oddly enough, translocating pumas is illegal in California) and India, where leopards come in closer to human infrastructure than the other big cats do.



According to the text accompanying this video at YouTube, Mom lived off the farmer’s chickens while she used the shed, but the farmer didn’t mind. They don’t mention it here, but hopefully someone paid him for that loss. Compensation is one of the methods used to reduce human-felid conflict while trying to be fair to both sides.


But many other countries can’t afford relocation and other protective programs; or perhaps corruption is a problem; or there is a cultural history that supports killing the cats, as in parts of Latin America with jaguars.

How to protect endangered cats and people, too?

India has tigers, too, of course, and they are endangered.

But the conservation move shown below comes with a moral dilemma.



This Royal Bengal Tiger was released into the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh. It is inhabited, but part of it is set aside for the tigers.

There are barriers on land, but tigers swim very well and can attack fishermen in boats, as well as anyone brave or desperate enough to go into the forest to harvest honey or collect firewood.

Royal Bengal tigers took 294 people in the Indian Sundarbans between 1984 and 2001, and 79 people on the Bangladesh side between 2002 and 2007. (Loveridge et al.)

House cats are too small to do much damage, but the larger cats like pumas, leopards, and especially lions and tigers occasionally maul or kill people. These tragedies are usually considered accidental — and often are just a matter of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time — but Loveridge et al. report that evidence suggests some Sundarban tigers stalk people on purpose.

This throws a different light on that video. Will someone die or suffer injury and disfigurement one day because those people released that tiger? Will frightened residents then retaliate by killing innocent tigers?

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions here. The tigers must be protected in their natural habitat, while this is also the traditional home for many citizens of these two very crowded nations.

One innovation conservationists use in the Sundarbans to address the very real terror in the night is lighting up streets and homes.

I know — the things we take for granted, right? Now you know: to many people in the world, having electric lights is still a life-or-death matter.

Electricity also comes in handy in Brazil, where jaguars are the only native big cats.

Like the pumas here, jaguars hardly ever attack people. Both species do prey on livestock, though. This not only hurts people financially, it also harms the cats through inevitable widespread retaliation killing.

Conservationists encourage ranchers to keep their herds away from forested areas (where most attacks happen) and to pen up their animals, especially during calving season.

And electrified wire around that enclosure can be very effective.



However, such technology is an investment that many small-scale farmers around the world can’t afford. Unfortunately, too, the loss of even one animal can significantly reduce their annual income.

Lions and people

Lions and tigers kill the most people. Leopards seem to have a taste for dogs and other canids, like jackals; they also poach livestock, as do snow leopards and many of the world’s smaller cats that live near people.

The situation with lions in Africa is extreme enough to deserve its own section. (Many sources address this. For simplicity’s sake, I’m just using numbers and other information from Loveridge et al., a highly cited and authoritative report.)

It’s depressing in ways that even go beyond the disturbing fact that African lions have lost some 80% of their historic range and their numbers are plummeting.

Let’s get some good news first, say, going on a lion-watching safari. Such ventures are supposed to save lions by making them a source of revenue. (The lions, in turn, I suspect, sometimes mess with our heads.)

It works: in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, each lion brings in $27,000 from tourism each year.

What’s horrifying is that, according to Loveridge et al., poisoning is probably the leading cause of lion deaths in Kenya.

The problem is that locals aren’t really involved in ecotourism operations and don’t see any of that revenue.

Too, the lions don’t stay on preserves and so pose a hazard to people as well as causing major economic losses by killing livestock.

With African lions, there are man-eating hotspots, too. In Tanzania, more than 560 people were killed between 1990 and 2004. Government compensation rates are only $30 to $50 per life, and it’s not surprising that people often decide to handle the situation themselves.

Sadly, it’s usually not just the maneater that dies in those retaliations.

Wherever local residents perceive lions as a threat, not as a source of pride and income, they’re going to kill the big cats, no matter how conservation-oriented their government might be.

It’s the old-fashioned approach of lethal control, still present in the 2020s.

Conservationists counter this by working directly with people. Here is one example:



The reason why they chose an adolescent male (he doesn’t have much of a mane yet) is because he hasn’t gotten established yet. All cats are strongly territorial and, when moved, will return to where they were picked up unless translocated more than sixty miles to an area that has no other cats of the same species — such places are rare, of course, and even then the lion, tiger, leopard, puma, or other problem cat may return to its old territory! Hopefully, these three lions will settle down here as the first members of a new pride.


The quality of mercy

You won’t see this issue of protecting both endangered species and people covered by headline news. It’s too messy and there are no simple approaches to focus on.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Conservation of dangerous but endangered cats, as well as conflict resolution, are major research topics.

They are important to every stakeholder, too, from a farmer in the Himalayas who loses half his annual income to a snow leopard’s killing a single goat or sheep to casual hikers on a well-traveled trail, like these:



Also, never turn your back on any cat large enough to harm you in any way — it triggers them, even if they’re otherwise loving pals of yours.


There are problems with every approach.

Each of the videos up above shows something positive, even the one with the mountain lion (the hikers kept their heads and backed away quietly, defusing the situation). A few cats, at least, can be saved this way now, and maybe it will help even more of them in the future.

Most importantly, the videos show that people matter in conservation, too. And that today we are still human enough to overcome our fears and to try to do the right thing.

Let’s hope that fragile but powerful part of us all never, ever goes extinct.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

–William Shakespere, “Merchant of Venice,” Act 4, Scene 1


Featured image: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock


Sources:

Amur Tiger Center. 2021. Annual Report 2020. http://amur-tiger.ru/en/ Last accessed April 14, 2021.

Loveridge, A.; Wang, S. W.; Frank, L.; and Seidensticker, J. 2010a. People and wild felids: conservation of cats and management of conflicts, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 161-195. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miquelle, D.; Darman, Y.; and Seryodkin, I. 2011. Panthera tigris ssp. altaica. The IUCN Red
List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T15956A5333650. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/pdf/5333650 (PDF)

Nattrass, N., and O’Riain, M. J. 2020. Contested natures: conflict over caracals and cats in Cape Town, South Africa. Journal of Urban Ecology, 6(1): juaa019.

WCS Russia. 2021. Siberian Tiger Project. https://russia.wcs.org/en-us/projects/siberian-tiger-project.aspx

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



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