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Before they're gone

Eric Dinerstein (’75), chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, is part of a global effort to save the habitat of wild tigers

Story by Doug McInnis

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Eric Dinerstein learned the basics of conservation science at Huxley College of the Environment. “If you solve the tiger habitat problem,” he says, “you help preserve other species in the same ecosystem.” | Photo by Julie Woodford

Despite what you may have heard, there are plenty of tigers in the world – in places like Texas.

But in the wild regions of Asia, where tigers are meant to be, they are endangered. Just 3,200 survive in a region that once supported 100,000, says Eric Dinerstein (’75, Ecosystems Analysis), the chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund.

More tigers can be found on Texas game ranches, he says.

Dinerstein has tracked the big cat’s fate since he participated in a tiger census more than 30 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. He’s now one of the world’s most influential wildlife scientists, and part of a multi-national movement to save the tiger.

The cat’s plight stems both from poaching and from human development of what was once prime tiger habitat. To reverse the tiger’s population crash, wildlife scientists say Asian nations must stop the poaching and expand the habitat. Dinerstein believes the cat can be saved, in part because other species have bounced back after approaching extinction. Just 100 southern white rhinos survived in Africa in 1900. Today, there are more than 20,000. “Even the most endangered mammals on Earth can make dramatic recoveries as long as we protect them and preserve enough habitat,” Dinerstein says.

Dinerstein was an unlikely candidate for a career in wildlife science. He spent his childhood indoors, reading and watching old movies. He foresaw a career as a filmmaker as he headed for college. Yet, within a few years, he found himself in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, living in a tent, sometimes riding an elephant for transport, and co-existing with some of the most dangerous creatures on Earth.

One memorable night, he and his Peace Corps tent mate awoke to the sound of crunching. They peered through the tent’s fly screen to see a huge one-horned female rhino and her calf grazing outside. The two men had been warned that rhinos routinely trampled people to death, though in this instance the animals wandered away. The experience terrified Dinerstein’s tent mate, who opted for law school when his Peace Corps stint ended. But the incident had just the opposite impact on Dinerstein. “It was the first face-to-face experience with a creature I would spend years of my life conserving,” he writes in his recently published memoir “Tigerland and other Unintended Destinations.”

These days, tigers are big on his radar screen. The cats often live in small, forested pockets that are surrounded by roads, development, or open farmland that they won’t cross. As a result, the tigers don’t move from their crowded confines to areas where space and prey would allow their numbers to grow. Though Dinerstein and other tiger backers want to create forested corridors to connect these pockets, skyrocketing human development in Asia may foil their plans. Governments in the region have embarked on a multi-trillion-dollar building boom of roads, rail lines, and expressways that could slice up these prospective corridors even before they can be established.

Fortunately, the heads of all 13 tiger-habitat nations have endorsed the St. Petersburg Declaration of 2010, which pledges to double tiger numbers in the wild. A recent scientific paper written by Dinerstein and other top wildlife scientists from 11 nations concluded that it was actually possible to exceed that goal and roughly triple Asia’s wild tiger population. It would entail strict land management and a system to pay Asian nations to preserve both the tiger and its turf.

Historic evidence suggests that tigers can recover quickly from large-scale losses, given the right conditions. In the 20th century, hunts by Nepalese royalty frequently cut tiger numbers, sometimes dramatically. One two-month hunt in 1938 killed 120. But the royal family rotated hunt areas and only rarely embarked on massive kills. That breathing room let tiger populations rebound in spite of the hunts.

The region’s climate favors the recovery effort. “Many of these areas get more than 50 inches of rain a year,” Dinerstein says. “If something has been cleared to golf-course height by overgrazing cattle, in two years it can re-grow densely enough to accommodate tigers.”

Of course, landowners may not go along with the plan unless they are paid. To find money to pay them, Dinerstein and his colleagues have proposed a system that enables industries to use carbon credits to pay landowners and governments to keep their land in trees. The trees act like a vast sponge that soaks up carbon dioxide and turns it into oxygen, offsetting the industries’ pollution.

But carbon credits alone won’t do the trick. “The wildlife could simply be poached out of the forest after it has been saved,” says Dinerstein. So wildlife backers want an additional payment made to save the tigers along with the forest. “We’ve got to make wildlife within these forests worth more alive than dead,” he says. Dinerstein is working with the World Bank to launch a program that essentially pays a monetary bonus to local residents if tigers can reoccupy areas outside of existing preserves.

“If you solve the tiger habitat problem,” Dinerstein says, “you’re likely to help preserve a lot of other species that exist in the same ecosystem.” Including people. Ultimately, the region’s economy should benefit as well because wildlife preserves can create new sources of income, such as ecotourism. “In poor countries, the resources come from a natural base, such as forests and coral reefs. If you don’t protect those resources, people will never climb out of poverty.”

Doug McInnis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Popular Science, The New York Times and New Scientist.