Wild tiger populations are rebounding for the first time in a century

  
Sumatran Tiger. 

Hey, look, some good environmental news: After decades of decline, wild tiger populations are slowly starting to rebound. Efforts to crack down on poaching and protect wildlife reserves in places like India, Russia, Nepal, and Bhutan seem to be paying off — though there’s still a long, long way to go.Tigers are notoriously hard to count, as they often hide out in dense jungles and snowy mountains. Biologists usually have set up camera traps to track them. But based on the best available data from national surveys, the WWF and the Global Tiger Forum estimate there are now 3,890 tigers in the wild, up from roughly 3,200 in 2010. (A more comprehensive survey is expected later this year.)

That’s still far, far below their historic peak. A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the globe, ranging from Turkey and the Caucasus to eastern Siberia and Indonesia. But decades of logging, development, and poaching have whittled the tigers’ habitat down to just 13 countries:

Tigers are a charismatic megafauna, so the prospect of extinction has garnered a lot of attention. And, in recent years, countries have been stepping up their conservation efforts to preserve what few wild tigers remain.

India is a great case study. A century ago, some 45,000 tigers wandered the country. By 2006, there were only 1,411 remaining, confined to just a few dozen wildlife reserves and encroached on all sides by development. The tigers often wandered out of the reserves for food, coming into deadly conflict with humans (deadly for both humans and the tigers). And poachers killed dozens of animals each year, spurred on by soaring demand for body parts in places like China, for use in traditional medicine.

So, over the last decade, India’s government has bolstered protections, training more forest guards and setting up camera traps to improve monitoring of the tigers. By 2014, the wild population had risen to 2,216. Nepal has seen similar successes, with its population rising 60 percent since 2008.

That said, it’s not all good news. The Indochinese tiger was recently declared “functionally extinct” in Cambodia due to uncontrolled poaching. The government has said it will try to reintroduce the species in the eastern Mondulkiri protected forest, under heavy guard, to see if it can thrive there.

And, ultimately, 3,890 tigers worldwide is still pretty paltry. To put that in perspective, there are about 5,000 tigers in private captivity in the United States alone. What’s more, because many of the wild sub-populations are isolated from each other, conservationists are worried about a lack of gene flow. (In India, conservationists have called for corridors that would link many of the existing tiger reserves, to facilitate breeding.)

The 13 governments that are home to tiger habitats have set a goal of doubling the wild tiger population by 2020. They’re meeting at the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi this week. It’s an audacious and difficult goal, but the early returns are at least encouraging.

Further reading: Study: We’ve wiped out half the world’s wildlife since 1970

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