By Dr. Eric Dinerstein
Intensive conservation efforts have led to a recovery of tigers in the Russian Far East, where in the 1940s there were only 40 individuals and now there are 500.
Almost everyone loves tigers. These magnificent cats draw crowds at zoos and are often the most popular animal on display. Hundreds of sports teams - professional, collegiate, little league - venerate tigers as their mascots. Advertisers seek to cash in on the tiger allure, urging children to eat breakfast cereals or encouraging motorists when buying gasoline. Even the surging economic powers of Southeast Asia are dubbed "economic tigers," a cultural symbol of strength and prosperity.
If only the security of tigers in the wild were as strong as the symbolic role this majestic animal plays in our society. But that is not the case. A new comprehensive report co-authored by WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Save the Tiger Fund, on the distribution and status of tigers and their habitat offers two grim headlines:
Tigers now reside in only 7 percent of their historic range.
Even more alarming, occupancy of tiger habitat is down 41 percent from what was estimated a decade ago.
Not all of the area estimated as unoccupied today is a result of habitat loss through, for example, conversion of natural forests to industrial agriculture, as is the case on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Some areas were assumed to have tigers 10 years ago but, after thorough checking by field researchers, were in fact found to be absent of tigers or the large prey - typically deer and wild boar - to sustain them. It's like driving through neighborhood after neighborhood and finding the houses still standing, but no lights on and no one home.
The study confirms an inescapable truth about the ecological health of our planet: Wild tigers are slipping away from us. There are some stunning examples of this trend: In 2005, tigers were eliminated by intense poaching in formerly well-protected Indian sanctuaries such as Sariska Tiger Reserve. This triggered an investigation by an Indian Prime Ministerial Commission which uncovered widespread poaching where tigers were once thought to be relatively secure. The lesson from Indian reserves is clear: Look away for a moment and tigers vanish. Poaching of tigers and the wildlife on which the species depends has led to extinction of tigers in Southeast China and a serious drop in Cambodia.
The irony of this decline is that tigers possess traits that should make them easy to conserve. Tigers and wolves are the two large carnivores that often breed faster than their prey. We only have to look at the dramatic recovery of wolves in Yellowstone to see an alternative future for tigers. And while some species require long-established habitats, tigers can prosper in habitat that is only a year or so into recovery from human or natural disturbances such as logging or floods.
Thanks to WWF's work over the past three decades, episodes of recovery dot the tiger range. Where WWF has provided protection from poachers and safeguarded wild prey and sufficient habitat, tigers have come roaring back. The overall picture painted by this new tiger report masks some success stories where tiger conservation is succeeding. In the Terai Arc, WWF is partnering with conservationists in both the public and private sector to reconnect and manage wildlife corridors. This includes linking 12 tiger reserves spread over 600 miles in southwestern Nepal and northwestern India, the two states thought to hold most of the world's wild tigers. The goal is to manage tigers as a single population where dispersal between refuges can maintain the genetic integrity of the tiger population and the ecosystem in which it thrives. This year, we are experimenting with new incentive-based approaches to make tigers worth more alive than dead to local communities.
Our intensive conservation efforts have led to a recovery of tigers in the Russian Far East. Where there were only 40 individuals in the 1940s, today there are 500 tigers living in what is by far the most intact and extensive tiger landscape in their entire range. These ambitious recovery efforts offer models for reversing current trends, not just in small reserves but across large landscapes.