In short, they are useless to us. And as harsh as this sounds, that has been humanity's conservation decider to date: if it is useful, we will keep it; if not, well, I do not fancy its chances. So, while dairy cows are far from endangered, the last auroch, their wild ancestor went extinct in Poland in 1627. Likewise, there are plenty of dogs in Britain, whereas the wolf was eliminated from the island state by the 18th century.
In fact, more than 90% of the weight of all the land vertebrates is now made up of humans and the animals we have domesticated. Megafaunal biomass (that's anything weighing more than 97lbs, or 44kg) is greater now than at any time since humans evolved 200,000 years ago, Barnosky says, despite our voracious impact on everything from giant sloths to North American bison. And that is because of the recent huge population expansion by us and our chosen creatures.
But many people would argue that tigers are an iconic animal; culturally important in several nations. That has not been enough to protect other iconic animals, such as the Asiatic lion, which once ranged from northern Europe down to South Asia and now persists in tiny numbers (reportedly derived from just 13 individuals) in one small reserve in India. Or the Barbary lion, the biggest and heaviest lion that was used by the Romans to fight gladiators, and which went extinct in 1922 when a hunter shot the last one.
The WWF justifies protecting tigers by pointing out the co-benefits for other wildlife. Individual tigers have such a big range that by protecting each tiger, around 38 square miles (100 square kilometres) of forest is conserved, including other endangered animals such as rhinos, as well as the vital ecosystem services humans rely on from food to water management. Because tigers are a top predator, they help regulate and conserve local biodiversity by, for example, helping keep the herbivore numbers down, which allows tree saplings to mature. Conservationists also argue that tigers are good for the local economy because they attract wildlife/eco tourists to deprived areas in the developing world.
So, if we are going to keep wild tigers, how will we do it? Most conservation strategies rely on guarding the cats against poachers and protective farmers. Successful efforts on India have relied on bureaucratic form-filling with identification requirements for everyone who wishes to visit tiger reserves, armed guards and compensation for villagers whose cattle are eaten by tigers.
Habitat conservation is key to preventing the animals' extinction in the wild. Consumers are urged not to buy timber products made from tiger-inhabited forests, such as Asia Pulp & Paper brands accused by the WWF and Greenpeace of rainforest destruction in Sumatra. But consumer pressure is unlikely to be enough. One option might be to improve tigers’ commercial value in the wild through tourism. A plan being mooted to save the orangutan, an endangered ape that shares territory with tigers, is to charge tourists a hefty “conservation fee” to see them. Permits to view mountain gorillas in Rwanda cost at least $500.
Perhaps the biggest problem with conserving the tigers' habitats, though, is that the cats typically inhabit the crowded regions of the world most heavily populated by humans, including India and China. The answer in the Anthropocene, may be assisted migration - to create a new habitat for them in foreign parts.
That's what Li Quan, a former fashion executive is trying to do. Li took two South China tigers, which are extinct in the wild and number less than 60 in captivity – from zoos in China to a reserve she has created in South Africa. There, she hopes to successfully breed them, allow them to learn the skills of a wild tiger, and eventually introduce them into reserves back in China. It is an ambitious plan and one that may be helped by findings that captive tigers in China actually retain broad genetic diversity now lost in their fewer wild relatives, meaning that there is a the possibility of “rewilding” tigers. And this genetic wealth also allows for the option of cloning tigers, should we be reduced to the last few.