Wild Tiger Resurgence Possible as Forests Return and Conservationists Get Real

There's no such thing as good news for tigers, only least-bad news.

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The world’s tigers are in a bad way. Over the last century, the majestic cats have lost 90 percent of their habitat, and 97 percent of their population. There are an estimated 3,500 left in the wild, spread across 13 Asian countries. These countries banded together back in 2010 to commit to doubling the wild tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. New research, published Friday, suggests they may succeed.

The thing that makes protecting tigers so hard is that, in order to save the animals, you have to save the forest. A single tiger requires more than 10 square miles of uninterrupted forest, full of clean water and adequate prey. Poaching is definitely a major contributor to the demise of the tiger, but habitat destruction is even more significant.

The tiger shares its range with some of the most densely populated, fastest growing countries in the world. The cats compete for the forest with encroaching human settlements and palm oil plantations. Even a road through a forest can mean the end of a tiger population — landscape fragmentation makes it harder for tigers to hunt and makes them more vulnerable to poaching.

Tigers live in the forests of South Asia, Southeast Asia, eastern Russia, and eastern China.

Science Advances

The researchers used satellite imagery to calculate habitat loss from 2000 through 2014 in key tiger conservation area, and were surprised with their results. “From our perspective, it is remarkable and unexpected that only 7.7% of the range was lost to conversion over the study period,” they write.

“Before undertaking the analysis, we predicted habitat loss to be much higher, considering that (i) the 13 tiger range states represent some of the fastest-growing economies in the world and (ii) many of the South Asian habitats that dominate the 29 highest-priority Tiger Conservation Landscapes are surrounded by human-dominated areas supporting the highest rural population densities on Earth.”

But while the overall news was good (or less bad than expected), data indicates dire situations in some key areas. Ten of the 29 most critical regions accounted for 98 percent of the habitat loss during the study period. The forests that were cleared could have supported 400 tigers if they had been left intact.

The good news is that there’s still enough forest left to support a doubling of the tiger population by 2022, the authors conclude. The population could triple in 20 years, but only if no further deforestation takes place in some key areas, and corridors are returned to a natural state in others. It’s a tall order, especially emerging economies where people can think of a lot of ways to use forest resources besides staying out and leaving them alone.

The countries that still have tigers are committed to maintaining a healthy population, but the days when tigers ruled southern Asia and eastern Russia are gone, likely forever.

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