To poachers, tigers are more valuable dead than alive, and hunting and loss of habitat have helped drive them to the edge of extinction. However, thanks to education and conservation, numbers are rising, so there is hope for the coolest of big cats...
In April 2016, conservationists announced a remarkable piece of news. For the first time in more than 100 years, the number of tigers living wild around the world was found to be rising. Time, surely, for a roar of celebration? More like a muted miaow.
The last time populations of these biggest of big cats were on the up, early last century, 100,000 of them were roaming across large swathes of Asia, from Turkey to the Russian far east. This latest rise, revealed by the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum, brings the estimated total to barely 3,890 individuals, up from a low of 3,200 in 2010. That’s a 96 per cent drop over 100 years.
‘Tigers are doing well in some places,’ says Avinash Basker of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), which has been safeguarding the subcontinent’s fauna for more than two decades. ‘In certain well-protected reserves in India, tigers are thriving. But you can’t say that across all the tiger range states.’ So, while numbers are up in India – home to 70 per cent of the world’s tigers – Russia, Nepal and Bangladesh, in some areas of Southeast Asia they have become functionally extinct. Basker also admits that the rise could simply be the result of improved monitoring in India’s reserves, whose figures form the basis of the survey. So there may not actually be more tigers surviving to adulthood, just more tigers being counted.
Whatever the case, tigers won’t be getting crossed off the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of at-risk species anytime soon. Of the six surviving subspecies, the most common, the Bengal tiger, is listed as endangered, with around 2,500 wild individuals, the majority in India. The rarest, the South China tiger, is one of the most threatened animals on the planet: no sign of one has been seen in the wild for the past 25 years.
Take a look at a tiger and it is almost impossible to imagine how they could ever disappear from our planet. So brawny (adult males can be three metres long and weigh 200-300kg), so agile, so powerful – they’re an awesome presence. Basker says he’ll never forget his first close encounter with a wild Bengal tiger, on the Kanha reserve in central Madhya Pradesh state. ‘It’s a real adrenaline rush,’ he says. ‘You’re really scared but also really excited. It stays with you for a long time. It’s like looking at the stars: it makes you aware of your insignificance.’
Tigers inspire wonder, but also fear – and this perceived threat has made them a target. As human activity grew across Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the big cats were increasingly drawn into conflict with people. In British India alone something like 33,000 people were killed in Bengal tiger attacks between 1876 and 1912. Exterminating these perceived Shere Khan-style man-eaters was positively encouraged, whether via big game hunting or via so-called pest control.
Human expansion also wiped out tigers’ habitats and prey, forcing them into more and more isolated areas of forest until they eventually disappeared in many places. Today tigers roam just seven per cent of the area they once inhabited and much of that loss has taken place in the past couple of decades.
In the early 1970s, with its Bengal tiger population down to just 1,800, India finally acted to save its national animal. The more than 40 reserves established by Project Tiger, which are managed by specially trained staff, have helped to stabilise numbers. At the last count in 2014, India was home to about 2,226 Bengal tigers, up a third since 2011.
Nevertheless, areas where tigers can roam freely continue to shrink. Even within reserves, unplanned developments and the building of new roads, railways and canals further carve up these solitary hunters’ habitats, leaving fragments too small for them to feed and breed healthily. Meanwhile, the Sundarbans reserve – a vast mangrove forest between Bangladesh and India – is threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change. And as tigers’ space diminishes, so do stocks of their natural prey – deer, antelope, wild boar and bison. All this brings the cats into closer contact with humans, leaving them vulnerable to retaliation by locals angry over attacks on livestock or, occasionally, people.
If we want to avoid such horror headlines, continuing to set up and maintain ‘wildlife corridors’ is vital. These are narrow strips of land that link different reserves and allow tigers to spread out, hunt, avoid interbreeding and establish territories safely, without encountering humans. For instance, the reforested Khata corridor lets tigers roam freely between Nepal’s Bardia National Park and India’s Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. A recent WWF report also warned that conservationists and infrastructure planners will need to collaborate more closely if the good work done so far is not to be undone by more development.
By far the biggest threat stalking these big cats is poaching. From its leathery nose to the end of its furry tail, every centimetre of a tiger is a coveted item that fetches premium prices on the black market. Its bones are used to make a traditional medicine said to impart the tiger’s strength to the drinker; its beautiful skin is used to treat mental illnesses; even its whiskers are said to cure toothache. Poaching has skyrocketed since the 1990s. In China, supplies of the native tiger – victim of an extermination programme pushed by former leader Mao Zedong – began running out just as demand for tiger parts from a burgeoning middle class grew. Pharmacists and dealers looked to India for a new source, which, despite the 1993 international ban on poaching and trafficking, shows no signs of drying up. In November 2016, the Indian environment minister reported that poachers took 29 tigers last year – up from the previous year. India has many dedicated park rangers and strict anti-poaching laws, but conviction rates are not high. Better training for rangers and a more efficient criminal justice system would help, says Basker, who heads the WPSI’s legal programme. But the real solution – reducing demand for tiger products in China and Southeast Asia – requires improved international cooperation.
In 2010, the last Chinese Year of the Tiger, India, China and 11 other tiger range nations agreed to try to double the number of tigers around the world by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022: the so-called Tx2 initiative. It’s an achievable goal and its importance stretches beyond just saving these big cats.
Wild tigers sit at the top of the food chain. Save one, and you save all the other parts of the 150-1,000km2 ecosystem upon which it rests. Protecting tigers means protecting fresh water supplies that benefit millions; protecting vegetation that keeps soils fertile and stores carbon, so mitigating against climate change. It also means protecting a booming tiger tourism industry that provides valuable jobs in remote rural areas. Put simply: for millions across Asia, saving a tiger could also mean saving themselves. And the thing to realise, says Basker, is that it can be done. Give tigers the right conditions and they will thrive: ‘As long as their habitat is preserved and they’re protected from poachers, there’s hope for tigers,’ he says.
Featured image by Owen Underwood