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Is It True That More People Have Been in Space Than Seen a Siberian Tiger in the Wild?

To point out just how dire the tiger situation is, conservationists often say that more people have been in space, than have seen a Siberian tiger in the wild, which might not be true

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There are less than 350 Siberian tigers still alive in the wild. The beast has only been caught in fleeting footage, a tail here, a nose there. The BBC Natural History Unit, the department of the BBC that films documentaries like Planet Earth and other famous programs mostly hosted by David Attenborough, has never caught one on camera. Until now.

To put the situation of the Siberian tiger into perspective, here’s an oft-quoted statistic: more people have been in space than have seen a Siberian tiger in the wild. But whether or not that’s true is hard to say.

To date, about 530 people have been in space. That’s certainly more than the number of living people who have seen a Siberian tiger. In the 1940s, the population of these tigers dropped to about 40 animals living in the wild.

But these tigers didn’t used to be so rare. The Global Tiger Forum estimates that in 1840 there were about 1,000 Siberian tigers in Russia. And there are all sorts of stories about tigers, who probably hunted people before people learned to hunt them. They feature prominently in the myths of the Chinese, the Tungusic peoples and the Manchu. The book Tigers in the Snow covers some of this mythology:

These Tungus peoples considered it a near-deity and sometimes addressed it as “Grandfather” or “Old Man.” The indigenous Udege and Nanai tribes referred to it as “Amba” or “tiger” (it was only the white strangers—the Russians—who translated that word as “devil”). To the Manchurians, the tiger was Hu Lin, the king, since the head and nape stripes on certain mythic individuals resembled the character Wan-da—the great sovereign or prince. “On a tree nearby fluttered a red flag,” Arseniev wrote, “with the inscription: `San men dshen vei Si-zhi-tsi-go vei da suay Tsin tsan da tsin chezhen shan-lin,’ which means `To the True Spirit of the Mountains: in antiquity in the dynasty of Tsi he was commander-in-chief for the dynasty Da Tsin, but now he guards the forests and mountains.’”

No one knows just how many people have seen a Siberian tiger in the wild before, but chances are, back when there were a thousands of them roaming about, it wasn’t nearly as uncommon as it is today. Of course, back then, no one had been in space, so this statistic didn’t make sense at all. Whether or not it’s true that more people have been in space than seen a Siberian tiger in the wild isn’t really all that important. Conservationists are simply trying to point out that if we do nothing to save the tiger, they will be extinct far before we reach Mars.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Tiger Tracks
A Debate Over The Best Way to Protect the Tiger

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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