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The Cat Comes Back.

Do tigers have nine lives? The nearly extinct cats aren't out of the woods yet, but they're making a comeback.

An old Vietnamese legend explaining how the tiger got its stripes tells of a man who once lashed the big cat to a tree trunk and set the tree on fire. The powerful tiger strained against the flaming ropes until it finally broke free, escaping extinction, but with black marks from the burning ropes seared into his fur.

Real tigers, it turns out, may be just as tough when it comes to fighting for survival. Less than a decade ago, researchers believed that prospects were grim for the world's largest cats. People had taken over much of the land once ruled by tigers and hunted down so many of them--along with the animals that tigers fed on--that by 2000, biologists predicted, tigers would effectively be extinct.

But now, "we're all very encouraged, which is very different from how we felt five or six years ago," says Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. "We won't be able to save the tiger everywhere, but in some areas there's been real progress."

Tiger populations have actually grown in eastern Siberia, Nepal, and some parts of India. In the Ranthambhore forest south of Delhi, a 1993 census found 20 tigers, at most, left in the region's 318 square miles. The latest tally suggests that figure has doubled and is still rising.

Even in countries where biologists feared the tiger was doomed, including Sumatra, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, there are encouraging signs. "We thought Sumatra was a loss," says John Seidensticker, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. "But there are pockets where survey data show there are good levels of tigers, more than we expected to be found."


The animal's survival, however, is by no means certain. Peter Jackson, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union in Switzerland, estimates that there are only 5,000 to 7,000 tigers left in all of Asia. A century ago, there were probably 10 times that number.

Still, progress is being made, and biologists attribute the tiger's comeback to several factors. In recent years, many Asian countries have cracked down harshly on poachers, who killed tigers for their bones, a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. (One big reason tigers hit bottom in the early 1990s was the explosive growth of China's economy and the increased demand it created for those traditional medicines.) Also, conservationists have learned some critical facts about tiger biology and hunting practices. One good way to save the tiger, they've concluded, is to save the deer, wild cattle, and pigs that tigers gobble up like fast-food burgers. Thus, they advise, countries should set aside areas where people can't hunt and where the animals that tigers eat, so-called prey animals, can breed.

After centuries of being hunted, tigers have also learned to steer clear of human beings as a source of food. They prefer meatier meals anyway, the better to support their massive bodies. The largest varieties are the Siberian males, which grow to 9 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds. The smallest are the Sumatrans, with males of 250 pounds and females 50 pounds lighter.


Whatever their size, all tigers are good hunters. An adult can pull down a wild bull two or three times its size, puncturing the prey's throat with canine teeth bigger than a human's index finger. Tigers have extraordinary vision and can hunt in daylight or darkness. They mate and breed readily, which is why, scientists say, tigers can rebound from near-extinction if given half a chance.

To further bolster the tiger's survival chances, conservationists have recently joined forces with practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to see if alternatives to the medicinal use of tiger bones might exist. They discovered, through examining ancient Chinese texts, that the bones of a common Chinese rodent, the sailong, can serve as a substitute if patients choose. Thus, in the end, changing the balm used by humans might be just the tonic tigers need.
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Title Annotation:protection of endangered tigers
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Jan 31, 2000
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