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Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

by Belinda Recio

Though revered for their beauty and power, humans have pushed tigers to the verge of extinction

When I was in the fourth grade I was given my first research assignment: Write a report about an animal I admired. I chose the tiger because his ability to disappear into the landscape—despite his boldly colored coat—struck me as some kind of supernatural ability. But I quickly learned that no magic was involved, just evolution. The tiger’s stripes and colors are a remarkable adaptation that enables him to blend into foliage and merge into shifting patterns of shadow and light like a master illusionist.

I wasn’t the only one who believed that tigers have uncanny abilities. The tiger’s talent for vanishing has captured our imagination for millennia. There is something inherently unnerving about such a visually striking animal being able to “disappear” right before your eyes. This, along with their size (they can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh more than 600 pounds), their strength (they can leap over 30 feet in a single bound), their predatory skills (they can take down prey more than twice their size), and their arresting physical beauty, inspired early cultures to revere, fear and even deify tigers.

Once tigers started to roam through the human imagination, it wasn’t long before people wanted a part of their “magic.” So they killed tigers for their teeth, claws, whiskers, pelts and other body parts, which were—and still are—used as talismans and medicines. Then there were the trophy hunters, who wanted the prestige of a tiger skin or head as a testament to their hunting prowess. There were also retaliatory killings of tigers by farmers who lost livestock to them. Finally, and most devastating, forestry, agriculture and development shrunk the tiger’s habitat to less than 90 percent of its original size.

All of these factors have profoundly diminished tiger populations. Consequently, tigers are currently considered highly endangered and are on the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Humans—despite their initial reverence for tigers—have pushed these remarkable cats to the brink of extinction.

But it wasn’t always this way between tigers and humans. Our ancestors shared the earth with tigers for at least two million years before humans had an impact on their numbers. At one time there were nine different tiger species, but now only five subspecies remain in the wild. Just 100 years ago, there were still more than 100,000 tigers on the planet. Today, scientists estimate that there are only about 3,800 wild tigers.

William Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger” connects the fiery majesty of the largest cat on Earth to the wonder and awe of creation itself. It opens with the memorable line, “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” In July, in honor of International Tiger Day (July 29), do your part to help keep tigers “burning bright” by supporting tiger conservation efforts.


• Stay informed by reading about tigers and programs focused on saving them:
Big Cat Rescue (bigcatrescue.org)
International Fund for Animal Welfare (ifaw.org/united-states)
National Tiger Sanctuary (nationaltigersanctuary.org)
Panthera & Save the Tigers Fund (panthera.org/cat/tiger)
Smithsonian Tiger Conservation Fund (nationalzoo.si.edu/conservation/tiger-conservation-partnership)
Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs.org/our-work/species/tigers)
World Wildlife Fund (savetigersnow.org)

• Share what you learn and spread the word.

• Support a program with a donation or fundraiser.

• Become a citizen scientistright from your computer—by helping to identify big cats captured in camera trap photos. zooniverse.org/projects/panthera-research/camera-catalogue

• Write to lawmakers and ask them to support legislation that protects tigers.

• Reduce habitat destruction. Purchase paper products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified or recycled, and those that use sustainable palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Purchase Rainforest Alliance-Certified coffee.

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