Photo: Unsplash / Pixabay
It’s a good day for wild tigers. Following heavy periods of decline, populations are up by 690 from the year 2010, according to a new census.
Tigers have been under threat since the 16th century. Mughal rulers, Mongols and Turks trekking the Asian plains on horseback were the first to go on safari, and tigers made the ultimate trophies. This continued into the 1800s when the British, eager to take part in the hunt, flocked to the continent on big game excursions in what was considered a noble and wealthy pastime. Hunters grouped in large parties with approximately 30-40 elephants at their command, convincing themselves (and the world) that they were ridding the globe of a natural enemy that ravaged villages, ate the young and killed all who stood in their way.
Things took a nasty turn in the 1940s. Advances in ammunition and weaponry allowed killings by the thousands, and cat populations began to show serious signs of regression. By the 1970s, roughly 1,800 of the potentially 100,000 animals that existed during the days of Rudyard Kipling and Mowgli were left alive. By 2008, numbers fell to about 1,400.
But in the last six years, wild tigers have jumped from 3,200 to nearly 3,900, based on recent survey data collected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Boosts in tiger populations have been recorded in several countries, including Nepal, Bhutan and Russia, thanks to enhanced protection efforts.
“For the first time after decades of constant decline, tiger numbers are on the rise,” says Marco Lambertini of WWF International. “This offers us great hope, and shows that we can save species and their habitats when governments, local communities and conservationists work together.”
Changes have been particularly drastic in India. In 2010, it was estimated that about 1,700 of the big cats roamed the nation’s capital of New Delhi. Now, numbers have risen to over 2,200, the highest they’ve been in four years.
“The tiger population… is rising in India,” explains environmental minister Prakash Javadekar. “We have increased by 30 percent from the last count. This is a huge story… Our latest estimate today is that India has 70 percent of the world’s tiger population.”
Despite alleged improvements, some say it’s too early to break out the champagne. Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), is skeptical of the rising numbers. Speaking to Planet Experts, she said that while regulations exist to protect tiger populations, very few are actually enforced, and recent surges can likely be attributed to “better counting techniques.”
“Tigers are threatened by the commercial trade for every part of their body,” she explained. “Bones for medicine, skins for decoration, claws and teeth for trinkets. What’s fueling poaching of wild tigers is the farming of tigers for commercial trade of their parts in China, Laos and Vietnam. Thailand farming tigers for trade poses the most urgent threat. It is much cheaper to kill a wild tiger than raising it to maturity for trade.”
WWF leader Michael Baltzer is also wary. He says the time to be complacent has not yet arrived, and protection efforts must continue. “A strong action plan for the next six years is vital,” he said. “The global decline has been halted, but there is still no safe place for tigers. Southeast Asia in particular, is at imminent risk of losing its tigers if these governments do not take action immediately.”
IFAW holds rehabilitation centers in both India and Russia. Wildlife Rescue Manager Gail A’Brunzo says that rehabilitation attempts for big cats, rhinos and elephants alike have been ongoing for nearly 15 years.
“The primary goal in any IFAW rehabilitation project is the humane rescue, care and release of injured and orphaned animals, ensuring each has the skills to survive in the wild,” she said. Orphaned tigers, for example, are usually taken in between four and five months of age. IFAW then provides them with proper veterinary care and survival training. “No direct contact is allowed, and indirect contact is kept to a minimum so they don’t become acclimated to humans. When the cubs are old enough and have demonstrated strong survival skills, they are released into protected areas and are monitored by satellite collars, camera traps, and ground tracking.”