Conservation denies tigers a future as a species

There are, it is thought, around 4,000 tigers still living in the “wild”. There may be as many as 8 – 9,000 in captivity (3,000 in China and perhaps 5,000 in the US). The tigers in captivity are in zoos and parks and are, in the US, often bred for “hunting”. Very few (< 100 perhaps) of those in captivity are returned to the “wild” every year. Breeding hybrid tigons and ligers once used to be very popular in zoos but less so now though it is still prevalent for entertainment purposes. The numbers are not very significant.

Tigers are magnificent animals and a cultural icon for humans. No doubt the sabre-toothed tiger was an even more magnificent creature. It is surely a matter of regret that they became extinct a long time ago. As a species they were replaced by others which were more suited to the changing world. If present-day tigers (considered endangered) were to become extinct, it would also be a matter of much regret. But I find the rationale for “conservation” efforts flawed and illogical. The WWF (which is close to being one of my least favourite organisations) writes in a typical woolly-headed, gushing style:

Yet they are more than just a magnificent animal – they are also crucial for the ecosystems in which they live. As top predators of the food chain, tigers keep populations of prey species in check, which in turn maintains the balance between herbivores and the vegetation upon which they feed. Balanced ecosystems are not only important for wildlife, but for people too – both locally, nationally and globally. People rely on forests, whether it is directly for their livelihoods or indirectly for food and products used in our daily lives. ……… Tigers not only protect the forest by maintaining ecological integrity, but also by bringing the highest levels of protection and investment to an area. Tigers are an “umbrella species” – meaning their conservation also conserves many other species in the same area. They are long-ranging and require vast amounts of habitat to survive; an adult male’s home range varies from 150 km2 – 1000 km2.

Tigers are endangered because their habitats are disappearing. That habitat loss is fundamentally irreversible. As a species they already have no significant role to play in the ecosystem prevailing. They have already become a redundant species biologically even if the concept of majestic tigers roaming wild forests still has a massive emotional impact on the selfish human psyche. Creating new tiger reserves – constrained in area by various means –  is little more than creating glorified zoos. They are just parks where the cages are a little bigger.  The tigers themselves are “frozen” into their current, unsuccessful, unsuitable, failed genetic state. They are doomed to continue unchanged and unchanging in a shrinking and ever more unsuitable habitat. There are no natural selection pressures (or artificial selection measures) in play which would make their descendants more capable of surviving in the new habitats due to changes that have already happened and have yet to come. This “conservation” is not about helping the tiger to survive by evolving but is only about freezing them into an increasingly untenable form. It is backwards looking and all about preserving failure.

I am even more convinced that traditional “conservation” is misguided and is done just to satisfy the emotional needs of humans, and not, in any way, forward-looking to help endangered species to adapt and survive into the future.

Fighting against species extinction is to deny evolution   – (ktwop – 2013)

So what then is the objection to – say – tigers becoming extinct which is not just an emotional reaction to the disappearance of a magnificent but anachronistic creature?  The bio-diversity argument is not very convincing and is of little relevance. To artificially keep an unsuccessful species alive in a specially protected environment has no genetic value. It increases the mis-match between the existing environment and the genetic profile needed to survive in that environment. In fact the biodiversity argument is only relevant for “life” in general and never for any particular species or group of species.  It can serve to maintain a very wide range of genetic material in the event of a catastrophe such that some form of life has a chance of continuing. But given a particular environment biodiversity in itself is of little value. …

…. All those species which succeed into the future will be those which continue to “evolve” and have the characteristics necessary to thrive within the world as it is being shaped and changed by the most successful species that ever lived (though we cannot be sure how far some particular species of dinosaur may have advanced). Putting a tiger into a zoo or a “protected” environment actually only preserves the tiger in an “unsuccessful” form in an artificial environment. Does this really count as “saving the species”? We might be of more use to the future of the tiger species if we intentionally bred them to find a new space in a changed world  – perhaps as urban tigers which can co-exist with man.

Smilodon image DinoAnimals.com

I’ll still make a donation to Project Tiger but that is about helping individuals to survive and has nothing to do with saving the species.


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