Posts Tagged ‘aurochs’

People are often castigated for breeding white tigers. After all, we know that white tigers cannot survive in the wild. However, this may be a moot point. The future for the tiger may no longer be as a wild animal.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the aurochs is not extinct.

Yes. I’m fully aware that the last of these large wild cattle died of natural causes in the forest near the village Jaktorów in Eastern Poland in 1627.

However, the aurochs species is not extinct at all.

It’s actually doing quite well. There an estimated 1.3 billion individuals of the aurochs species still running around the world today. Their range is no longer restricted to Eurasia and North Africa.  They are now found throughout the world.

That’s because the aurochs still exists as a domesticated species. We just usually refer to them as domestic cattle.

Most people don’t know the name of the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. When I was a kid, I naively assumed they were derived from bison or maybe water buffalo.

The aurochs couldn’t survive the duel forces of habitat destruction and widespread hunting for humans. Agriculture demanded the use of fences and cultivated fields, and as we currently see in Africa, where large ungulates are among the most hated of species because they raid crops, the aurochs was not well-received in agricultural areas.  Domestic taurine cattle derive from aurochs that were domesticated in the Near East.  There is very little evidence that European aurochs contributed to modern taurine cattle strains, although I should caution that this finding is still hotly contested. There is no evidence that European aurochs mitochondrial DNA lineages exist in modern taurine cattle, but it possible that wild European bulls might have contributed to domestic taurine cattle.  These wild cattle would have introduced very wild characteristics into the domestic stock, that is very likely that they could have been killed off for that reason alone.

In the last days of the aurochs, they existed only in Eastern Europe, where Slavic and Germanic nobles organized hunting parties to slaughter them.  These were sporting hunts, not at all dissimilar to the hunts organized against British white park cattle or Spanish bullfights, but these nobles had no real understanding of wildlife management. And it wasn’t long until they became very rare. When it was discovered that the last population in Poland had been reduced to only around 40 individuals, all hunting was banned.  The hunting ban didn’t save the wild herd.  It is not exactly clear what happened, but it is likely that these last  individuals were too far from each other to exchange genes. They then became inbred, and they weren’t able to survive the inbreeding depression that set in.

Now, this isn’t really an unfamiliar story for us in the twenty-first century. The only difference is we have a good understanding of wildlife management and conservation breeding. If the seventeenth century Polish gamekeepers had only known what we know now, they might have been able to save the aurochs. Perhaps if they had allowed the aurochs to mate with primitive and feral domestic cattle, there could have been some chance for a genetic rescue.

There are many species that have several parallels in common with the aurochs.

Perhaps the most similar to aurochs is the current situation with the  tiger.

Like the aurochs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the tiger is facing dueling threats of habitat loss and fragmentation and hunting pressure from humans.  Unlike the aurochs, the tiger is not currently being hunted for sport. Instead, it is being hunted because its body parts are considered useful for medicinal purposes in China. China’s booming economy in recent decades has resulted in a very strong middle class, which has increased demand for tiger parts.

So tigers are being hunted in areas where they still live.

And in most of tiger range, suitable habitat is becoming harder and harder to come by. Growing human populations in much of Asia, demand new agricultural areas. Forests are also being felled to feed the growing lumber market, and humans want to graze livestock in areas where tigers currently roam. Tigers will occasionally take livestock. They also will occasionally take people.

Most people living in tiger territory have very little tolerance for them.

All of these features pretty much spell doom for the tiger.

However, like the aurochs, it has another chance.

And like the aurochs, this chance really isn’t all that pretty.

You see, the tiger readily breeds in captivity.

And although there are between 3,000 and 4,000 tigers left in the wild, there are an estimated 20,000 tigers of various and crossed subspecies living in captivity.

Unlike the aurochs, however, the exact utility of captive tigers isn’t clear. It is true that there are tiger farms in China that mass produce tigers for their body parts, but it strains credulity that these farmed tigers could actually become a sustained domestic population in the way domestic cattle were.  The Chinese people are not ignorant. They are becoming more and more attuned to science, and they are adopting modern medicine. This process of accepting modernity has been going on for centuries, and the same forces that are creating a strong Chinese middle class– namely greater access to education and foreign markets and ideas–are going to erode the market for medicinal tiger products over time.

The best that these tiger farms can do is take some of the pressure off of wild tiger populations, which is not a bad thing. However, it is unlikely that we’re going to find another use for tigers to replace the function that will be lost when the market for tiger products eventually collapses.

But by the time it collapses, there won’t be many tigers left, and there won’t be much room for those that are still around. And those that are still around will likely become so locally inbred that they won’t be able to survive, even if they are no longer hunted.

I am not optimistic for the tiger’s future. Its future, such that it has, will be to exist as a captive animal.  Over time, captivity’s selective pressures will fundamentally change them. They probably won’t become an animal that one could ever keep as a pet, but they will never be the wild animals they once were.

They will be living museum pieces, maintained solely to remind of what once was but never will be again.

These captive tigers are better monuments to what was once the tiger than the docile and dopey domestic cattle are to the aurochs.

Indeed, the best monument to the aurochs is this memorial that was placed at Jaktorów:

Someday soon, we’ll have to place one of these monuments in some Asian forest. My guess is it will be somewhere in India or Bangladesh or perhaps in the Russian Far East.

This monument will be to the last wild tiger. No longer does it it burn bright in the forests of the night.

Instead, its faint embers burn away in the cages and enclosures of the zoos, tiger farms, and circuses.

The embers will grow fainter over time– until the tiger will be but a shadow of itself.   It will become a giant pussy cat that can never roam as its truly domestic counterpart is often allowed to do.

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