At the Save the Tiger event at the Royal Geographical Society in London last week Lyn Hughes from the magazine Wanderlust introduced the evening. She commented that the Tiger was suffering a crisis and that the most recent poaching has been to service to Tibetan market where a growing middle class has become enamored of Tiger skins. The Dali Lama has spoken out against this fashion, but this just lead to the Chinese government ordering TV presenters to wear them.
Lyn introduced a film on the work of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, narrated by Rula Lenska (who was in the Hitchhiker's radio series, another Douglas Adams link) and included various other celebrities: Gary Lineker, Jackie Chan, Minnie Driver and Ralph Fiennes, all of whom spoke the line, "When the buying stops, the killing can too", in a plea to get people to stop the market for endangered species items.
After the short film David Shepherd the wildlife artist spoke. He initially commented that he knew little about wildlife which was why he had brought his friend and colleague Mark Carwardine. He went on to talk about his first tiger encounters, both in the wild and captivity, before ending with a story of trying to explain to an Indian tourist official who was bemoaning the state of the Taj Mahal that the building could be rebuilt, but if the tiger becomes extinct then the species cannot be brought back to life.
Mark Carwardine then spoke discussing the work of the foundation through the world as he has recently been auditing their projects. He said he was here to do the factual stuff which David was there to be inspiring. Mark began with some stark numbers on the status of mammals in the world. 1095 of the 5416 named species are considered endangered, that is 20%! This includes mice and bats as well as the more charismatic rhino and tigers.
Mark mentioned that he had recently been in Burundi and seen the Gorilla who are just about hanging on, and also been swimming with Manatee in Florida where all the animals have propeller scars, before moving onto the story of a manatee relative, Steller's Sea Cow. These twenty-five foot long animals were discovered in the Bering Straits in the mid eighteenth century by a group of shipwrecked sailor who hunted and ate them whilst building a replacement boat. Within 27 years the whole population had been exterminated, although Mark holds out a hope that somewhere in the area there may be a surviving population. The Tasmanian Tiger is another famous extinct mammal, and Mark showed the picture of one at Hobart Zoo in 1933. There used to be a government bounty for killing these animals, but now there is one for finding one alive.
Mark then mentioned his trip with Douglas Adams for the book and radio series, Last Chance To See. He chuckled that the two of them had bumbled round the world for eighteen months looking for nine animals, of which two were mammals. Back in 1990, he said, there were an estimated 100 Yangtze River Dolphin, but that none had been seen recently and that unfortunately the photograph he took might become as famous as the Tasmanian Tiger picture as one of the last of a lost species. The other mammal was the Northern White Rhino. Mark and Douglas saw 8 of the 22 alive when they visited in 1991 in one three hour flight, but now, he said, there are possibly just 6. The African Lion he warned could be next. Although there are 20,000 left, that represents a decline of 96% in 60 years. The warning signs are there, that is a faster decline that the tiger, the problem is that we generally leave things very late to try and save these animals.
Returning to his travels visiting David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation projects he said that recently he had been shot at, bitten, headbutted by a Rhino and more. In Mongolia the foundation is working with the nomads to stop them killing the snow leopards which sometimes attack their Yaks. To do this they have mobilised the female population by buying clothing made from the Yak wool, and paying a bonus when there are no recorded leopard killings in the area. Pressure on the elephant population has seen them move from the ear-torn Congo encroach on villages in Uganda, trampling crops and also men sent to protect the crops. Paying the people to build a 20km elephant trench has reduced the trampling problem. In Siberia, where Mark was shot at, the foundation fund anti-poaching patrols that are attempting to protect the tigers in the fairly lawless area to the north of Vladivostok.
The final project that Mark talked about was Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam in North-East India. It contains 1850 Indian Rhino, approximately three-quarters of the total population, and also a signification population of tigers. Buying basic equipment such as bicycles, radios and torches for the rangers the foundation has helped this become one of the most successful parks in terms of reduced poaching. Mark's bottom line was that it is people that make a difference, and that the foundation has a great track record of finding the right people and getting them involved.
The talks were followed by a raffle and auction of wildlife art to raise more money for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.