T4T was started by Conn Davidenko in the fall of 1997. He was a returning veteran who was moved by experiencing a tiger up close, and thought that Clemson students should be enlisted to help save wild tigers. He found a willing ally in Takako Sato, President of Students for Environmental Awareness, and T4T began as one of SEA’s programs.
The next spring, Conn and Takako were sent by the Provost to the World Tiger Conference in Dallas, TX where they met experts from all the tiger range countries as well as the CEO of Exxon, who was delighted to see students there. T4T has remained continuously active since its beginning, and I have served as its Faculty Advisor throughout. It is the only club on campus that focuses on tigers, and must have 1,000 alumni. Thousands more have heard about us from our speakers, films, Cubs for Cubs programs in elementary schools, and other club activities, as well as from the 9 Creative Inquiry and 10 travel courses that I have taught on tigers, from stories in Clemson World, Your Day and others, from taped testimonials by Coach Bowden and President Barker, from videos on the Megatron, from our growing social media presence and, finally, from the national organization that we created.
We have had four major successes:
1) T4T was created by students, not administrators, and is the oldest student organization in the country devoted to saving tigers. We are entering our 18th year, and expect to welcome second generation members to the club soon!
2) On April, 27, 2001, the Club officers presented T4T to former President Barker and noted that our goals matched many of his for Clemson, for example to engage students in international, interdisciplinary activities that had real benefits for society and would reflect positively on all of us. He was an instant supporter and said, “I want you to get Clemson students in Asia this summer, to see tigers in the wild.” Tigers are mostly found in remote and often dangerous places, and we had explored and ruled out Siberia and Vietnam before a breakthrough in 2003. That is when we invited Mr. Pradeep Sankhala, Director of Tiger Trust India, to Clemson for our annual Tiger Lecture on Earth Day, and he reciprocated by inviting us to India the next year to see tigers. Pradeep’s father, Shri Kailash Sankhala, had been appointed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to be the Founder and First Director of Project Tiger, and later created Tiger Trust as an independent advocate for tigers. Louis Bregger (then Director of International Student Services) and I developed a new course on Indian Biodiversity and Conservation and took our first group of 17 travelers to Kanha and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserves in 2004 where we saw tigers. We have taught that course ten times now, and taken nearly 200 Clemson students, staff and alumni to India and neighboring countries to learn about tigers. Every traveler has seen tigers in the wild and it is a powerful and sometimes life-changing experience. We are planning our 11th trip for next spring. All of these trips have been coordinated with Tiger Trust India, supporting medical workshops, programs with tribal children, and so on. No other US school can match our commitment to International education and service learning around tiger conservation.
3) Conn Davidenko’s original vision included engaging students from other tiger schools in our efforts, and we tried several times without success. This is too much for a club to carry out with one or two meetings per month. However, the new Creative Inquiry program gave us a way to put a team of students to work and receive credit, and the students who went to India in 2011 jumped on it. They devoted the next four semesters as a CI team and created the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition, and hosted its first Annual Summit. They had great university support starting with President Barker and including many professionals from media, marketing, event planning, and other units on campus. We launched the National T4T Coalition at its first Annual Summit held at the Hendrix Center in April 2013, with eight tiger experts and students from at least five schools. Sean Carnell, the President of Clemson T4T and one of the CI students, graduated a month later to become the National Coordinator of the Coalition, a position he helped create, and I serve as its Founding Advisor. The Coalition has a paid staff, and is at 14 member schools and growing, including a new T4T club from the University of South Carolina! It held its second Annual Summit at the University of Missouri this spring and will meet at LSU next spring. This organization is unique in that it is entirely by students and has a national reach, and it has obtained unparalleled interest by domestic and international NGOs, the media, and even Congress. The students have mobilized to write letters and meet with Congressional representatives in support of the Save Vanishing Species Stamp, the Big Cats Public Safety Act, and new federal anti-poaching efforts. Our CI teams are planning national writing and public education campaigns this fall for raising awareness about tigers in captivity and the wild, including a Tiger Awareness Week in November. This story of student engagement is an extraordinary story one that is being told in the print, online, radio and television media (links to be added soon). Clemson T4T started the movement and continues to support it with CI classes, and people all over the country know of our contribution.
4) While I have been supporting the student club for 17 years and taking students to learn about tigers in India for 10, I have finally found graduate students who were highly qualified to study tigers in the field. To my knowledge, this is the first tiger research ever by Clemson students. Jenifer Bunty spent winter of 2015 in the Russian Far East measuring prey densities with the tiger team from New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society, while Vratika Chaudhary spent this summer studying disease threats to tigers in India’s Kanha Tiger Reserve, in collaboration with the Centre for Wildlife Forensic and Health in Jabalpur.
-David Tonkyn, T4T Advisor