President Obama, listen to your daughter

Posted by: Jennifer Scarlott on


 Dear Mr. President:

             At an Earth Day celebration at the White House on April 22nd, Mrs. Obama was asked whether there is an environmental issue of particular concern to the Obama family. This was her response:

             You know, we’re big tiger-savers, because Malia’s one issue for her father is saving the tigers. So we talk about the tigers at least once a week and what he’s doing to save the tigers. He tells her he’s working on it and there are a lot of people who are thinking about it. He hasn’t come up with a sufficient answer yet, but he’s got a couple more years or so to fix this problem. But I think the Obama household, we’re trying to save the tigers.

             Mr. President, knowing how devoted you are to your daughters, and to children all over the world, many of whom share Malia’s passion for tigers, I’d like to provide you with a few compelling reasons for sharing their concern, and some policy recommendations for tigers’ protection.

             Why add tigers to the pressing issues on your plate? Malia is correct that they are in urgent need of “saving.” She also may know intuitively that the tiger is a metaphor for all of nature. The survival of its forest habitats across Asia is critical to efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Experts believe there were approximately 100,000 wild tigers in 1900; as of this date, tiger numbers have dropped 95 percent. India, with the largest tiger population, may have no more than 1,000 cats. The animals are caught in the crosshairs of poaching, habitat loss, and human-animal conflict. Many experts believe that at the present rate of loss, tigers in the wild will be extinct within our lifetimes.

 Our planet is in the midst of a crisis of biodiversity loss so significant that scientists call it the “Sixth Extinction Event,” with the important distinction that this spasm of species loss is the first to be instigated by human beings.  Tigers are just one of many species at risk, but the IUCN (World Conservation Union) gives them its “most endangered” ranking. Why focus on saving tigers, when so many species are at risk? Not only because we have less time to save them than some species, but because we get more bang for the buck in protecting them. Tigers are an umbrella species, an apex predator in need of large territories for its survival. This means that in protecting the tiger, we protect vast numbers of plant and animal species within its domain.

             What’s good for the planet is good for Homo sapiens. Put another way, it has become clear that human security and ecological security are synonomous. Tigers are a case in point: they need forests, clean water, and abundance of prey to survive. Human beings, too, cannot survive without a thriving natural environment. As the world gets smaller and we see that deforestation in India, or enormous carbon footprints in the United States adversely impact populations all over the globe, we see that protecting tiger forests benefits not only tigers and the ecosystems in which they reside, but ensures clean water sources on which human populations depend, and carbon-sequestering forests our planet needs.

             Finally, the tiger, as Malia knows, is one of earth’s most magnificent and iconic species. It has played a role in human cultures since Homo sapiens and Panthera tigris began their long history together. The world and we humans would be the poorer without this remarkable creature. Though the U.S. is not a tiger-range state, the tiger should not just be the concern of those countries in which it resides. The tiger is a global citizen, beloved by people all over the world. As an “indicator” species whose decline signals ecological trends dangerous to humans, the tiger deserves concerted attention.

             Mr. President, there is a great deal that you can do to help bring tigers back from the brink. First, you can use your office as a “bully pulpit” from which to educate and encourage citizens and leaders. During your upcoming trip to India, I would urge you, as President Clinton did, to visit a protected area inhabited by tigers, and discuss with India’s leaders, (including Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, who is eager to halt the slide toward oblivion of India’s national animal), ways in which the United States can assist in protecting the species.

             Second, your domestic and international leadership on climate change are urgently needed and will significantly improve the tiger’s (and our own) chances of survival. Tigers and a stable climate share a common need: healthy forests. The Sundarbans forest, an enormous tidal region shared by India and Bangladesh, contains the world’s highest-density tiger population, and is vulnerable to rising seas. Your active support for the U.N.’s Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) will aid the tiger and target carbon emissions in one fell swoop. Economists estimate that with financial assistance from the United States and other developed countries, tens of millions of people in India alone could be put to work conserving the carbon-sequestering forests in which tigers roam.

             Third, most of the poaching pressure on tigers stems from the illegal wildlife trade, third in line behind international crime networks that traffic in weapons and narcotics. You can use the power of your office to encourage strict compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

             Finally, the World Bank, through its “Global Tiger Initiative,” has taken a recent interest in promoting tiger conservation. The Bank and other international development agencies, however, have done vast harm to tiger habitats with their funding of coal mines, dams, monocultures and other ecologically destructive projects. Your leadership could be critical in helping to create a new vision of human development and security that entails protection rather than heedless exploitation of natural resources.

             I hope that Malia will maintain her thoughtful pressure on behalf of tigers. Like so many wise young people around the world, she understands that environmentalism and species protection are human and planetary requirements, not “special interests.” Each day, many children like Malia are joined by adults around the world in the fight to protect the tiger and its habitat. Because of their commitment, and with your help, the tiger will continue to roam forests from Siberia to Sumatra to India, long into our children’s children’s future.