Clemson works to protect wild tigers from extinction
By Melanie Kieve, Jonathan Veit and Neha Rao (Researcher)
Today, one of our family members is in trouble.
Identified with Clemson since its earliest days, wild tigers are facing extinction. Habitat destruction, human conflict, poaching and climate change are arrayed against them, and now the global population of wild tigers is estimated to be just 3,200. That’s equal to the number of freshmen who entered Clemson this fall.
It should be easy enough to save wild tigers from extinction. All they really need is to be left alone to be the symbols of strength, grace and courage that make them the embodiment of the Clemson spirit.
But today tigers inhabit only 7 percent of their historic range, and the land area occupied by tigers has decreased by 41 percent in the last decade, according to some studies.
Three of the nine tiger subspecies are now extinct.
The tigers that remain exist in tiny, isolated populations scattered across the 13 tiger range countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Through groundbreaking research, Clemson professors are making discoveries that bolster the argument that connectivity between islands of tiger habitat must be maintained in order to sustain their future viability.
Clemson conservation geneticists Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta, with colleagues from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, found that forest corridors play an essential role in maintaining the flow of genes between tiger and leopard populations in central India and are paramount for sustaining their genetic variation.
In the first ever gene-flow analysis of these big cats, Sharma and Dutta analyzed the genes of the estimated 273 tigers and 217 leopards living in four distinct populations in the 17,375-mile Satpura-Maikal region of central India, then used computer modeling to compare contemporary and historical gene flow among the region’s tiger and leopard populations.
This genetic data indicates that while the flow of genes among the four tiger and leopard populations has decreased over time, clusters linked by contiguous forest corridors have maintained a high rate of gene flow. Reserves that have lost connectivity between them have seen the greatest decline in gene flow.
“The viability of the forest corridors connecting tiger habitats has a direct effect on a tiger’s chance of finding an unrelated mate and on the ability of tiger populations to maintain genetic diversity,” Dutta said. “As we know, genetic diversity allows species to survive disease and habitat stress and encourages long-term survival.”
Currently, central India’s tiger corridors have no legal protection and the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests recently gave permission for coal mining development in a key forest corridor connecting two of the habitats in the study.
“Mining brings with it many ancillary habitat disruptions,” Sharma said. “There are settlements, roads and infrastructure that will have an inevitable impact on the corridors and possibly obstruct the flow of genes between the habitats.”
Wild tigers can also face a fate more gruesome and incomprehensible than habitat fragmentation and encroachment.
As they have been for thousands of years, tigers are hunted, killed, then stripped of their body parts in the belief that their physical strength, beauty and mythical power can be conveyed to humans, treat chronic ailments, cure disease, promote virility and restore energy.
In traditional East Asia medicine, tiger bones are ground, mixed into soaps and added to drinks. It is believed that humans can be imbued with strength, cunning and courage by consuming a tiger’s heart. A tiger’s hide is not only taken for its beauty, but sitting on it can allegedly exorcise bad spirits. Carrying a tiger’s claw can supposedly promote courage and protect from sudden fright. Tiger whiskers are believed to cure toothaches.
While they were once pursued by native people trying to scrape together a meager existence, they are now hunted by sophisticated crime syndicates using technologically advanced weapons and taking in an estimated $20 billion annually from criminal activity. Some tiger body parts can bring as much as $50,000 on the black market.
Campus-wide Conservation Efforts
In addition to research, Clemson professors and students are challenging traditional beliefs, shaping tiger conservation policy and raising awareness on campus.
In 2012, Clemson became a partner with the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), and a Creative Inquiry team led by parks, recreation and tourism management associate professor Elizabeth Baldwin began working with Clemson faculty and leaders from the World Bank and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to explore ways to enhance communication among the 13 tiger range countries and bring global awareness to the plight of wild tigers.
Clemson’s Institute for Parks, under the direction of associate professor Robert Powell, provides research, education, training and outreach to parks worldwide. The institute’s work includes tiger conservation training and tiger habitat connectivity analysis to the tiger range country of Bhutan.
In May 2014, Powell, Sharma, Dutta and Katie Bower, assistant director of Clemson’s National Scholars Program (NSP), led a group of 15 NSP students on a trip to explore the biological and cultural diversity of Bhutan.
The trip was the capstone to a semester-long study of the complexities of international conservation as seen through the lens of Bhutan tiger conservation.
“As Clemson Tigers, we’re more likely to respond to the issue of tiger conservation, but there is still a large lack of support in this area. Our trip to Bhutan allowed us to meet firsthand the players in tiger conservation — from those trying to preserve the parks to the poor rural farmers struggling with the predators killing their livestock. Tiger conservation is a complex issue, but one of great importance that requires the world getting off the sidelines and taking an active role in helping,” said senior biochemistry major Brittany Avin.
Since its inception in 1997, Clemson’s Tigers for Tigers (T4T) Club has been on the leading edge of a national movement to save wild tigers from extinction. It was created by students and is the oldest and longest-running student organization in the nation devoted solely to saving tigers.
Over 17 years, the organization has hosted speakers, films, Cubs for Cubs programs in elementary schools, and other activities. The club has also had a national reach, obtaining unparalleled interest by domestic and international non-governmental organizations, the media and Congress. Most recently, students have mobilized to write letters and meet with Congressional representatives in support of the Save Vanishing Species Stamp, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, and new federal anti-poaching efforts.
T4T initiatives led to the creation of a course on biodiversity and conservation in India that is offered each spring and involves a trip to India and neighboring countries to learn about tigers. Led by T4T faculty adviser David Tonkyn and coordinated with the organization Tiger Trust India, the trip has involved more than 200 Clemson students, staff and alumni over the last 10 years. The trip also involves supporting medical workshops and programs with tribal children.
In 2011, T4T members started a Creative Inquiry class that, over the course of two years, established the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition, an alliance of several tiger mascot schools as well as other colleges including the University of South Carolina. The coalition’s goal: to raise national and international awareness of the growing threat to tigers. The Clemson T4T launched the coalition in April 2013 with a summit that is now an annual event.
Tonkyn and T4T are also working with two graduate students to engage tiger research. Jenifer Morton spent last winter in the Russian Far East studying prey densities, and Vratika Chaudhary is studying the threat of rabies, distemper and other diseases to tigers in Kanha Reserve.
“While everyone who is a part of the Clemson Family shares a love for tigers, very few truly understand the current crisis this species is facing,” said Taylor Tench, Tigers for Tigers president. “Some experts predict that wild tigers will become extinct by the year 2050. Because the tiger is such a fundamental part of Clemson University, we have a responsibility to work toward ensuring its survival for future generations of Clemson Tigers.”
Clemson students desiring to get involved in tiger conservation can join Creative Inquiry groups, participate in Tigers for Tigers, enroll in classes focused on biodiversity conservation (see the Institute for Parks website for list of programs focused on conservation), and explore international travel and educational experiences, Powell added.
“The understanding here at Clemson is that creativity and innovation in tiger conservation won’t just come from wildlife and conservation biologists,” Powell said. “We’re welcoming bright minds in academic disciplines from across the University, such as engineering, international business, mathematics and architecture to engage with solving the problem of tiger conservation. It’s a recognition that we must act now to save this amazing and iconic animal.”
Our Tiger Tradition
Clemson and tigers have been intertwined from the University’s beginning, according to Clemson historian Jerry Reel. In 1896, only three years after Clemson opened its doors, it formed its first football team and, after much deliberation, the tiger was selected as the mascot.
Through the years, the tiger mascot has taken on different appearances from ferocious to friendly. One of the most important transformations in Clemson’s Tiger tradition came in 1969, when a committee settled on a new Tiger Paw logo based upon a plaster cast from a Bengal tiger that had a small hook-shaped scar, Reel said.
“The designer — John Antonio — included that scar in the logo,” Reel added. “The rest is history.” Today, the Tiger Paw is one of the most recognizable symbols among U.S. colleges and universities.
No matter its origin or iterations, one thing is undeniable — the tiger epitomizes Clemson’s strength and pride. It represents the entire University as a symbol for educational excellence and competing at the highest level.
Clemson students from the 13 tiger range nations have been moved by the University’s passion for tigers — both as a mascot and a focus of its conservation efforts, said Guneet Bedi, a native of India and president of Clemson’s International Student Association.
“Clemson’s engagement in wild tiger conservation makes me feel at home, as this noble endeavor provides me an important connection with my country and significantly contributes to the sanctity of the ecosystem,” Bedi added. “I really feel that Clemson is the 14th tiger range nation.”
Tigers Always Conservation Week
Clemson students and faculty — along with conservation leaders — are bringing the University’s tiger conservation to the forefront during Tigers Always Conservation Week Sept. 23-27.
The week will feature events bringing awareness to the plight of wild tigers and how the entire Clemson community is joining together for their survival. In addition to a kickoff event, the week will include a signing ceremony for a collaboration between Clemson and the Global Tiger Forum, an international wild tiger conservation body; a public showing of “Life of Pi,” the Oscar-winning and tiger-focused film created, in part, by Clemson faculty member Jerry Tessendorf; and a festival on Bowman Field celebrating the 13 nations that wild tigers call home.
“Tigers Always Conservation Week is an opportunity for us to bring awareness to this critical issue, to showcase the ways our faculty and students are engaged in tiger conservation, and to raise funds to support that work,” said Neill Cameron, Clemson’s vice president for advancement. “It’s all about saving the tiger, and I can’t think of a better champion than Clemson to lead this effort.”
For more information on the week’s events, visit clemson.edu/tigers-always.