Mascots are big at U.S. colleges. They cheer on their schools’ beloved sports teams and entertain the crowds. But one group of tiger mascots representing schools from across the U.S. is teaming up to protect real tigers in the wild.

The tiger’s appeal as a mascot is based on its status as the largest of the great cats. Yet some mascots involved in the effort are cute and cuddly, like the costumed Aubie at Auburn University. (Sportswriter Jacob Kornhauser says that “essentially, Aubie looks like a librarian that happens to be a tiger.”) Others are more menacing like Towson University’s growling, toothy costumed tiger, named Doc.

Fun or fierce, the college mascots want to spread the word that tigers are endangered. Of the nine subspecies of tiger that are generally recognized, three are considered extinct. Only 3,200 tigers remain in the wild today, down from 100,000 a century ago.

The Tigers for Tigers coalition harnesses the passion of 56 colleges with tiger mascots, their 450,000 college students and 6.5 million fans to save wild tigers, said Sean Carnell, the national “spirit campaign manager” for the coalition. He became active in the effort when he was a student at Clemson University, which has a Bengal tiger as its mascot. Clemson started its own Tigers for Tigers effort in 1997.

The Tigers for Tigers Coalition is part of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and uses social media, advocacy programs and projects abroad to help protect tigers.

“College students can bring a passion, energy and new, fresh approach to tiger conservation,” Carnell said. Last summer, for example, the coalition reached some 27 million people via #WhereRtheTigers on Twitter during International Tiger Day.

Auburn mascot Aubie greets fans before a college football game against Mississippi State in 2015. (© AP Images)

From its whiskers to its glorious striped coat, nearly every part of the tiger is sold on the black market for a lot of money. Some cultures falsely think tiger parts cure rheumatism, convulsions, typhoid fever and dysentery. Tiger bones have been crushed and put in wine.

Tigers also are threatened by loss of habitat. The tiger once ranged across Asia to the Russian Far East. It currently survives only in scattered populations from India to Vietnam and south to Indonesia, and in China and the Russian Far East.

Tigers for Tigers supports graduate research on tigers. An example is the work that Vratika Chaudhary, a master’s student at Clemson University, is doing in India, home to 70 percent of the world’s wild tiger population. Her interest in tigers started several years ago when she was getting a degree in dental surgery in Kolkata, India. During her visits to hold oral health camps, she heard stories about man-tiger conflicts. The dental school is close to one of the most special tiger habitats in the world — the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest that extends between India and Bangladesh.

“As I learned more about biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation and other conservation issues in south Asia, I realized there was a great need for scientific research and decided to leave my dental career,” Chaudhary said.

She worked as a field naturalist in Kanha National Park in India for a year and then came to Clemson University in 2013 to begin research on infectious disease threats to tigers and other wild carnivores in India. “Researchers play an increasingly important role in tiger conservation,” she said.

Tigers for Tigers also is active in Russia, home to 450 Amur tigers. The efforts are all part of the global interest in protecting species. March 3 is World Wildlife Day.