Q. Dear Umbra,
I was sad to see a distressingly long list at the Woodland Park Zoo of extinct tiger species. (I’m not sure why I like tigers so much—maybe because, for me, they’re nature’s most awesome and menacing achievement. Or maybe because some are orange and striped!) I was even more saddened to see the news about biodiversity loss. I want to contribute resources to very endangered wildlife. What is the most impactful way to contribute?
— Really Over Animal Repression
A. Dear ROAR,
I think this question is on the minds of millions of people this week — maybe not for tigers specifically, but certainly for animals and plants and bugs and fish all over the world. If it’s not, well, maybe they should follow your lead and take a gander at the truly alarming report that the United Nations just released on the prognosis for biodiversity on Earth.
In short, it’s not looking good: One million species of flora and fauna are threatened by human activities. The primary threats are habitat loss due to agriculture expansion, direct exploitation from poaching and overfishing, and, of course, our constant nemesis climate change.
The report largely frames this impending loss of biodiversity in terms of the impact it will have on humans, such as the disappearance of medicines, fuels, and crucial crops. Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations for The Nature Conservancy, contends that we got to this point because “our economic model doesn’t value the things nature provides for free, even though they’re essential for life.”
But land use expert Linus Blomqvist, of the Breakthrough Institute, argues that keeping consequences human-centered can be a limitation in assessing the value of various species. “I think it would be hard to argue that we’d materially suffer if there were no tigers, at least in any substantial way,” he said. “But society still finds lots of reasons to conserve tigers — for cultural and ecological reasons, and spiritual and aesthetic appreciation of wildlife.”
In other words, Earth could lose a lot of species and humans would still be fine — but that’s not a reason to allow biodiversity to collapse. Rich, healthy ecosystems should be allowed to exist for reasons independent of their economic value to humans. It sounds like you tend to agree with that. I’ve never heard anyone describe tigers as “nature’s most awesome and menacing achievement,” and clearly your fondness for them has nothing to do with human markets.
But just to give so-called “unnecessary” species their fair due, some animals’ ecological value becomes clearer after they’re actively protected, because they’re considered an “umbrella species.” Tigers, for example, need huge, untouched spaces to thrive — as many as tens of thousands of square kilometers of forest and grassland and what have you — and therefore efforts to protect them can end up conserving the many other living things within those vast habitats.
“When you’re protecting them, you’re protecting the other species in that area, and vast areas of forest,” says John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program director for Panthera.
So now that we’ve established your love for tigers is not necessarily a waste of time or resources, let’s address your question about how best to help them. First, we need to pause and understand why tigers are so threatened in the first place: Basically, they’re worth more to the communities that live around them — in countries across southern and eastern Asia — dead than alive. Poachers can make bank hunting tigers because because their bones, blood, and organs are considered powerful ingredients in several traditional medicines.
And tigers may be seen as incidental to the valuable resources of their habitats. In parts of India, for example, the timber in forests sustains the people that live around them, supplying wood for the stoves that power homes. Other communities clear forests so that land can be used for agriculture.
I have a friend who’s also a huge tiger fan, and he suggests the punishment for poaching should be putting the poacher in a cage fight with a tiger, but (a) I don’t see this getting a lot of political support, and (b) it ignores the fact that solving environmental problems often requires us to care about other justice issues, like poverty. How can you tell a person that they have to stop trying to live off the land around them because the tigers have to live? How would you convince a poacher that it’s fair they’ll be jailed or shot for pursuing a means to feed their family?
And in any event, punitive measures to protect tigers only go so far. Amping up punishment of deforestation or poaching or wood-collecting without doing anything to provide alternatives to the human needs driving those things is ineffective and ethically questionable. Fighting biodiversity die-off likely means also working on social welfare, better fuels, and increased agricultural productivity, Blomqvist says, adding that the benefits “are so much wider than the effects on conservation.”
So what might that look like? Governments and NGOs can invest in productivity-increasing measures for farmers so that they can increase how much they grow without having to expand their land into forested territory. Organizations can invest in getting more and more households onto electrical grids so that they’re not taking wood from the forest.
Additionally, policies that support indigenous land rights in regions where endangered species live can help preserve biodiversity. Indigenous tribes’ knowledge of the natural resources around them spans generations and tends to be stronger than that of government organizations. (Indigenous land management is also ranked as a crucial practice to bring down carbon emissions by Project Drawdown, a research collective that studies the most effective ways to mitigate climate change.)
“There are lots and lots of studies that show that land managed by indigenous communities ends up with better biodiversity outcomes than land managed by national parks,” says Deutz, noting that indigenous groups are crucial allies in conservation. “If we help them with their land rights aspirations, we’ll get conservation as a benefit because they’re better land-restorers than governments.”
All of these are excellent measures to prevent deforestation (a primary driver of habitat loss and climate change), which threatens billions of species (including humans!) that are not tigers. In fact, preserving tropical forests — home to tigers! — is one of the most cost-effective ways to try and limit global warming to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
Back to how all this relates to you: You can use these standards to vet the conservation organizations you want to give your money to. Ask questions about how organizations help invest in communities around important tiger habitats to ensure that their protections actually work.
But I also have to warn you that conservation organizations can only do so much. If you care about preserving biodiversity, you have to prioritize that value in your spending and your voting. Support candidates that prioritize climate change and understand the value of ecosystems. Don’t buy from companies that stake their operations on palm oil and other drivers of deforestation.
And also, keep loving tigers for more than what they can contribute to you! I think that’s just the best! More selfless love for animals! But also, try to extend that compassion to the humans who live around those animals, because they deserve it too.