Bringing back the tiger: can we save the species from extinction?
Just over a decade ago, leaders of all 13 tiger range countries came together in a bold and inspiring pledge to save this iconic big cat. Their pledge? To double tiger populations by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. So, with a few months to go, who is on track to deliver?
After decades of uncontrolled persecution and relentless habitat destruction, wild tiger populations have declined by more than 95% – from an estimated 100,000 to as few as 3,200 12 years ago.
With the species this far gone, it has become clear that saving tigers from extinction will only be achieved through global co-operation. And so, in 2010, leaders from 13 tiger range countries came together in St Petersburg for the first International Tiger Conservation Forum.
There, they endorsed a Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP) and made an unprecedented pledge: to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.
This ambition became known as TX2, and with the help of a coalition of partners, the goal was set. TX2 was deemed the most ambitious global recovery effort ever undertaken for a single species, with its ultimate success measured by the total number of wild tigers. So, with just a few months to go, who’s on track?
Where are tiger numbers increasing and decreasing?
“Some countries have done some phenomenal conservation work, either demonstrating recovery or increases of numbers, and in some cases range expansion. Those countries include Bhutan, Nepal, India, Russia and China,” says Stuart Chapman, WWF lead on the Tigers Alive initiative.
Conversely, other countries have lost ground. “Tigers are in decline in Malaysia, probably stable in Thailand, but have disappeared altogether from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.”
In terms of monitoring the progress towards TX2, Stuart anticipates an increase in the number of tigers against the baseline, but predicts a patchwork of success and failure across individual country counts.
Overview of the countries and their progress towards TX2:
- Myanmar: The Myanmar Government confirmed its place as a tiger country with a new minimum national number of 22 tigers, as well as recent evidence of tigers breeding in the wild.
- India: The 2018 census surveyed 381,400km² of forests for tiger signs and prey estimation, and set up 26,838 camera-traps across 141 sites. It estimated that there were 2,967 tigers, compared to the estimate of 2,226 in 2014.
- Thailand: In 2020, 100 tigers were reported. The Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the largest known tiger population in the country.
- Cambodia: Tigers are functionally extinct in Cambodia. The last tiger of Cambodia was captured on camera- trap in 2007. However, the government hopes to reintroduce the felines to the Eastern Plains Landscape.
- Indonesia: Fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers are estimated to remain in the wild.
- Malaysia: In 2010, Malaysia claimed it would double its number of tigers from 500 to 1,000. In fact the opposite has occurred, with the population well below 200 today.
- Vietnam: Experts estimate as few as five tigers may remain in the wild in Vietnam. With no evidence of breeding populations – tigers here are considered functionally extinct.
- Laos PDR: In 2010, the government said there were 17 tigers. Anecdotal information suggests there are few or no breeding female tigers left in Laos; tigers here are considered functionally extinct.
- Bangladesh: There has been an 8% increase (114) in the tiger population since the 2015 census, which reported 106 tigers. Estimates show that Sarankhola has the highest density of tigers (93.33 tigers per 100km²); while Khulna has the lowest density (1.21 tigers per 100km²).
- Russia: If current progress continues, Russia is confident it will reach 700 individuals by 2022, compared to 540 in 2015.
- China: In 2015, the evidence of breeding Amur tigers was found here for the first time in 10 years. From 2016 to 2020, fewer than 30 tigers were reported.
- Bhutan: The 2015 census, which estimated 103 tigers, found that the big cats were mostly distributed within the north-western, central, and south-central parts of the country, between the altitudinal range of 150–4,000m.
- Nepal: Nepal showed a 19% increase in tigers (235) in 2018, compared to the estimated figure of 198 in 2013. Bardia National Park has seen particular success: 12 years ago, only 18 tigers were counted there. Today, the official count is 87.
How are tigers counted?
The main method for collecting information on tiger populations across their range is camera-trap. Two devices are positioned on either side of a trail, so that when a tiger passes by, it is photographed from both sides.
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The striped pattern of a tiger is unique to each animal, allowing for individuals to be recognised, but it is imperative that both sides of the big cat are captured.
Responsibility for the co-ordination of tiger population estimates falls to the national government. NGOs working for tiger conservation within tiger range countries will contribute equipment, scientists and time to the endeavour.
The data collected is then passed to a national tiger authority which co-ordinates analysis, giving rise to a national population number.
A closer look at tiger numbers: Nepal
Nepal was the first country that looked set to achieve its pledge, when its 2018 nationwide survey reported 235 tigers – up from 121 documented in 2008. For a landlocked country, sandwiched between the high ranges of the Himalayas and the lowlands of the Terai, it continues to have great success.
Support for the movement was established at the very top, with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli chairing the National Tiger Conservation Committee himself. “The tiger is a priceless gift of nature,” he said in a speech. “Its conservation would reflect the pride of Nepalis.”
Nepal established a dedicated task force within the government, which spearheaded a range of measures focusing on conserving tigers and their habitat.
The country increased the number of national parks, extended the ranges of existing national parks and restored corridors to connect them all, involving local communities at every step of the way. The results have been impressive. Bardia, for instance, has since seen a four-fold increase in tiger numbers against the baseline.
Living in peace with tigers
“Tigers have never disappeared from this landscape, so people feel that the big cats are part of their lives,” says Emmanuel. “Some find them beautiful and exciting; others, such as farmers, find them dangerous, but everybody agrees that this is tiger territory too.”
Emmanuel witnessed first-hand the measures on the ground in Bardia that ensure as peaceful a coexistence as possible between people and predator.
“No livestock is left unguarded; paddocks are protected with electric fencing and watchtowers,” he recalls. “A rapid response team deals with immediate conflict, and I witnessed regular anti-poaching patrols on foot, on bicycle – even on elephant.”
How high are tigers found?
As well as an increasing population, Nepal has also recorded two separate incidents of wild tigers at altitudes previously undocumented. In April 2020, camera-trap images showed an individual at about 2,500m on the forested slopes of Dadeldhura, in the west of the country, a new record that was broken again just eight months later, when another tiger was photographed at 3,165m in the eastern Ilam district.
“It’s likely that tigers once inhabited these higher landscapes, but they certainly haven’t been seen there for a generation,” says Stuart. “The reason they can move from the Terai into the midhills is that there is still forest connectivity between the lowlands and the uplands – proof of the success of connectivity conservation.”
At such elevations, the tiger’s standard prey of sambar and chital deer does not exist. Instead, the cat has to rely on smaller upland species, such as musk deer, muntjac and wild pig. The only other prey option is domestic cattle.
Thus, the tiger’s return comes with a series of conservation challenges. “It’s important to map where these places are and to ensure that there are conservation interventions ready to be implemented, so that the presence of tigers doesn’t create conflict,” explains Stuart.
A closer look at tiger numbers: Bhutan
Connectivity is vital to ensuring the continued growth of healthy tiger populations. And in some areas, connectivity does remain intact. More than 70% of Bhutan, for example, is comprised of forest cover – the highest proportion in Asia. Bhutan’s ability to protect large swathes of virgin wilderness can probably be credited to two factors.
First, the country has long prioritised conservation of the environment. In the 1970s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck developed a new approach to development known as Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH stated that sustainable development should give equal importance to the non-economic aspects of well-being, with one of its four pillars being conservation of the natural environment.
Second, Bhutan is a Buddhist country, where tigers are revered not only for their ecological role in keeping forests healthy, but also for their place in spiritual beliefs. The tiger is the only real-life species included among the four protective animals of Buddhism – Sing (snow lion), Chung (garuda, a bird-like creature), Druk (dragon) and Tag (tiger).
It’s fitting, then, that tigers are thriving in Bhutan. The population has now crept over the 100 mark and the country likely offers the species the highest probability of long-term persistence in the world.
As with Nepal, tigers are being documented at high altitudes, with camera-traps in Wangchuck Centennial National Park capturing images of a cat at 4,400m, and pugmarks at 4,600m – the highest altitude record to date. Indeed, due to their remoteness and inaccessibility, the slopes of the Himalayas could provide an important refuge for tigers in the future.
Tigers and communities
Yet nothing is guaranteed. Bhutan is developing fast, with new roads and infrastructure springing up in every corner. Part of Emmanuel’s project during his time in the country was to capture imagery to support a campaign to protect wildlife corridors from the threat of development.
“Bhutan contrasts starkly with Nepal, where tigers live side by side with people,” says Emmanuel. This is evident in his camera-trap footage from Nepal, which shows tigers and locals regularly using the same forest routes, sometimes within minutes of each other. The sheer difference in tiger landscapes is one of the reasons the GTRP is so complex.
However, the campaign is a landscape-based approach that aims to encompass these intrinsic differences. “We engage in conservation actions well beyond protected areas – and even beyond country boundaries in this case – with communities at the centre of these efforts,” explains Nilanga Jayasinghe, WWF’s senior programme officer for Asian species. “Communities having a sense of ownership and stewardship benefits both wildlife and people.”
And where one goes, others should follow. “If Nepal can do it – if Nepal can commit the resources and the political will to make saving tigers a source of national pride, it sets a tremendous example for other countries,” says Stuart. “For a small, landlocked country, Nepal has achieved extraordinary conservation success – not just for tigers, but also for rhinos and snow leopards. For a number of years, it has achieved zero poaching of rhinos, which, given the high value of these animals in the illegal trade, is remarkable.”
A closer look at tiger numbers: India
Positive news, then, from Bhutan and Nepal. But the official first-past-the-post to achieve its TX2 goal was India. Its 2019 census was unprecedented both in the extent of tiger habitats surveyed and the density of camera-traps deployed, and the results offered great hope and reassurance about the tiger’s prospects in many areas of the country.
With India’s wild tigers accounting for more than 80% of the global total, there is no question that the future of tigers depends on successful recovery here.
Born Free’s Living with Tigers’ initiative, which focuses on the Satpuda area of central India, a stronghold for the country’s remaining wild tigers, has been particularly successful. In Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the number of wild tigers increased from 308 to 526, and from 190 to 312 respectively, between 2014 and 2018.
Finding the right formula for tiger conservation
Through bursaries funded by Born Free, conservation activities are being implemented to protect tiger habitats, mitigate human-wildlife conflict, tackle wildlife crime, monitor tiger populations, raise awareness and improve the livelihoods of people living next to tigers. Several projects have been set up to help reduce conflict with wildlife in general, by supporting people in developing sustainable livelihoods.
One example is the bio-gas initiative, through which fuel is provided to homes, so that people are less reliant on collecting firewood from the forest. Born Free has also established a dedicated team of tiger ambassadors – local villagers trained to identify signs of tiger presence and assist if conflict occurs; a mobile education unit, which visits local schools; and a mobile health unit, which provides clinics to villages.
“Reducing human-tiger conflict, ending poaching, improving habitat quality and connectivity and increasing prey numbers across India and beyond will be vital to the success and perpetuity of tigers,” says Nikki Tagg, Head of Conservation at Born Free.
Yet achieving this will be a continuous effort, a fact reinforced by news of the death of a tigress known as Solo, who was found poisoned along with her cub by local villagers in the buffer zone of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve at the end of 2020. Solo, who starred in the BBC’s Dynasties series, had killed 20 animals belonging to nearby villagers.
Tigers in captivity in the US
Support for tigers in the wild could be given a further boost thanks to legislative changes currently afoot in the USA, where numbers of tigers in captivity (estimated at 5,000–10,000) far outnumber those in the wild. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is currently being debated in the US Senate – if passed, it will be illegal to privately own, and to have direct public contact with, tigers.
Captive tigers are most valuable as cubs, for use in visitor interactions. Once they grow beyond petting size, they are likely to be sold on the black market. This risks fuelling the illegal trade in tiger parts and maintaining a demand that is also met through killing wild tigers.
“Prohibiting the possession of captive tigers in the US would send a strong signal that tigers do not belong in private ownership, and may trigger responses in other countries where tiger farming remains an issue that drives the trade in tiger products,” says Jan Schmidt-Burbach, global head of wildlife research and animal welfare for World Animal Protection.
What does the future hold for tigers?
In September 2022, the second International Tiger Conservation Forum will be held in Vladivostok, Russia, providing the opportunity to review the work of the past 12 years. There are at least five national estimates due to come out next year, and it is expected that most countries will aim to time those results with the summit.
“One thing that all NGOs working on tigers would agree is that a continuation of a target for a further 12 years, and having that international focus, must continue. The risk associated with believing the job was done would be disastrous for tiger conservation,” says Stuart.
Jan is very clear on one factor moving forward. “There is an urgent need to decrease the demand for tiger and other big-cat products, in order to achieve the goal of increasing the wild tiger population.”
World Animal Protection has found that the continued high demand for big-cat products as luxury items or for use in traditional medicine not only leads to horrendous living conditions for captive individuals and those on farms, but also directly threatens the wild tiger population.
Yet the success of those countries that have already significantly increased their tiger populations has proven that it is possible. “If we can get living with tigers right,” concludes Stuart, “we have a formula for the successful conservation for all carnivores.”
Main image: A tiger in Bardia National Park, Nepal, photographed with a camera trap. © Emmanuel Rondeau