Dr. David W. Tonkyn
How Tigers For Tigers and I Got a Good Start at Clemson
By Takako Sato,
Wildlife and Fisheries Biology 2001
I never thought I was making history when I was a student, helping start the Tigers for Tigers movement. Looking back now after 17 years, though, I can see the actions I took then helped to create something BIG! Individual contributions made Tigers for Tigers what it is today and I hope we can continue to channel our passion into action - for the sake of saving wildlife around the world!
In 1997, I was a sophomore majoring in Wildlife Biology and also the President of “Students for Environmental Awareness ” (SEA, now called “Students for Environmental Action”). Conn Davidenko, an Animal and Veterinary Sciences major, enlisted SEA in his dream to start a club called “Tigers for Tigers.” He had an experience first-hand with a tiger which inspired him to take action. He made us aware that tigers were endangered throughout the world, and that we as Clemson tigers could be their best voice in the USA. Conn had a grand vision to bring in other Tiger schools and create a national organization and, right out of the gate, he got approval from the Provost to send himself and me to the International Year of the Tiger Conference in Dallas, Texas in the spring of 1998, to kick-start our networking efforts for the new club.
It was an eye-opening experience to sit in the same room with experts from around the world, where discussions about conservation efforts were translated into three different languages. It sparked in me the dream to work in international conservation. I worked hard afterwards to get into the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Student Career Experience Program and, as soon as I graduated in 2001, I started working for them full time.
Created by Conn Davidenko in 1997 and with the support of SEA and its faculty advisor, Dr. David Tonkyn, Tigers for Tigers became a very active student movement and soon an independent student club. One of the early T4T Presidents, Quyen Nguyen, even went to Vietnam for a summer to learn about tiger conservation efforts there. In 2003 we hosted a five day visit including an Earth Day lecture by Mr. Pradeep Sankhala, Director of Tiger Trust India. His father Shri Kailash Sankhala had created India’s tiger reserves at the request of Prime Minister Gandhi, and served as the first Director of Project Tiger. Pradeep continued his father’s efforts and invited us to India to learn about tiger conservation first-hand. Dr. Tonkyn and Louis Bregger, Director of International Student Programs at Clemson, offered a new course the very next year on Indian Biodiversity and Conservation that included travel over spring break to India’s tiger reserves. Little did we know that it would continue for the next 10 years! (Editorial note: Trip 11 is now being planned!) They have introduced 100s of Clemson students to India and taught them about the conservation challenges there.
After graduation, I kept in touch with Dr. Tonkyn, and he invited me to join one of the trips so, in 2006, I went to India for the first time. There, we saw beautiful forests and many wild tigers up close! I could sense the fire burning in the wild tigress’s eyes as she was saying to me “leave me alone,” but I knew her survival depended on us humans – that she still needed us to take action and make a change so that she could survive in the wild. When I attended the tiger conference in 1998 estimates for wild tigers worldwide was 7,500. Today that number has dropped to 3,200 and, at this rate, they could disappear from the wild in a few more decades. Seeing the challenges that tigers face in the wild changed my life.
T4T has been working with Tiger Trust India since Pradeep Sankhala’s visit to Clemson in 2003. Ms. Anjana Gosain, a prominent Delhi attorney, took over the leadership the next year, and I invited her to Washington, DC and introduced her FWS’ International Affairs Office, with Dr. Tonkyn and several T4T Presidents there for support. After that, I began writing grants for Tiger Trust India, translating Anjana’s tireless efforts into proposals, and we have been able to get FWS funding since 2007 for her anti-poaching programs in India’s tiger reserves. In addition, because of my own FWS experience working with endangered Florida wildlife including manatees, whooping cranes, sea turtles, and Florida panthers, as well as supporting local and national programs, I could offer some advice for implementing projects and education programs in India.
In 2010, I left my position with the FWS because my husband’s job took us to Japan. But I continued to work with Tiger Trust and, in 2011, I was able to return to India again to join another Clemson student class but also to help write the final reports for the FWS grants we had received. The amazing Clemson students I met in India that year went on over the next two years to create the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition and host the first National Student Summit in April, 2013. I was so pleased that I traveled all the way from Japan to Clemson to join them. I cannot not put into words the pride I felt in being one of the people who started this amazing movement as students with passion and vision from many schools worked together to save tigers. I am confident that if we can continue to empower young people, we will ultimately be a force for real change in the world. In Japan, many people don’t know about the dire situation tigers are in, so I give talks and support conservation activities regularly. I hope to create an alumni group in Japan that can participate in trips to India to see tigers as well.
The fact is I’m not alone. By Clemson taking steps to unite with 13 other tiger schools joining our efforts, we formed the first ever national organization of students to unite for the common cause of saving an endangered species and its habitats. Many people have stepped up by making trips to talk to Congressional representatives and asking policy makers to make a difference for wildlife funding. I have volunteered to support growing the Alumni base support for T4T because I hope that we can continue to expand our efforts to connect with other Alumni, and activate people so they know there are REAL concrete steps you can take to help save our wildlife. If given a chance, wild tigers can make a comeback easily but we must take action in order to save their habitats and inspire hope in others to think that it is possible to turn back the tide!
Copyright, Takako Sato 2014
Conn and Takako at the World Tiger Congress, Dallas 1998
Takako (far left) 1st National T4T Summit in Clemson, April 2013
Tiger seen from the back of an elephant in Bandhavgarh National Park, March 2006
Takako with Japanes students working to save tigers