Tiger numbers could soar in the wild – report

4 Apr 2016

A new report into tiger habitats around the world has found that a doubling (and even trebling) of numbers in the wild is possible, as long as the remaining forested areas where they live survive.

About eight months ago, we spoke with Mike Balzer, an Englishman charged with heading up the WWF’s Tigers Alive initiative. At the time, he was hopeful that the drop in the number of wild tigers around the world – which has gone from 100,000 at the start of the 20th century, to just 3,200 now – had stopped.

Back in 2010, a major summit in Russia saw countries commit to doubling wild tiger numbers by 2022, “the pinnacle of what we could achieve”, said Baltzer – an optimistic goal, but one that was needed.

His confidence, it seems, is supported by others, as a new report into the natural habitat for tigers found it can support many, many more. Using a new, satellite-based monitoring system, researchers analysed 14 years of forest-loss data within the 76 landscapes that have been prioritised for conservation of wild tigers.

Overall, habitat loss during the 14 years was just 7.7pc – although 10 of the 19 critical areas saw almost complete loss. The mean, though, made for positive viewing. By ensuring these environments persist, and the trumpeted tiger corridors are supported, there’s hope for a resurgence.

Tiger conservation extinct

A tiger in the Ussuriysky forest reserve in Russia, via Shutterstock

Corridor of hope

Countries in the north-eastern region of the tiger world, like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, are home to a slender corridor that is seeing the decline in numbers finally slow to a halt, according to the WWF, something that supports the paper, which was led by Anup Joshi at the University of Minnesota in St Paul, in the US.

Using satellite footage and tools like Google Earth, Joshi suggested that a doubling by 2022 (and even trebling soon after) isn’t beyond the realms of possibility – admitting his work was only made possible by the explosion of big data tools, for free, into the market.

Up-to-date satellite imagery, married with a catalogue of historical images, means scientists can see habitat loss in relative real-time. In the past, viewing gradual environmental change took decades.

“The tiger countries have set the goal to double numbers – we are bringing them the tools to plan and meet their target,” said Joshi in The Guardian. “We have developed a tool that anyone in those countries can use without having remote sensing expertise. Now we can monitor forests annually and provide this info directly over the web, making people more accountable.”

Siberian tiger running in snow, via Shutterstock

Siberian tiger running in snow, via Shutterstock

Ups and downs

The paper finds that the “most encouraging” aspect is that habitat loss is far slower than expected on average, making the 2022 goal attainable. However, it described as “devastating” that the areas hit hardest include many of dedicated ‘tiger conservation landscapes’.

Most habitat loss observed by Joshi’s team occurred in areas where palm oil expansion was the primary industrial focus. The Cambodian Northern Plains landscape, the Southern Annamites and Bukit Tigapuluh were cited as particularly damaged areas.

Investment in roads in areas where tiger populations exist would be a “mortality magnet” for tigers. This is something Balzer noted last year, citing Asian expansion into forests as a huge obstacle. “Massive funds will be going into infrastructure, dams, forestry. Finding solutions in a future Asia will be a big challenge,” he said at the time.

However, given the better-than-expected general theme, a doubling of numbers of wild tigers by 2022 – and even trebling by 2036 – is possible, according to the recent study.

Oddly, one of the promising notes is the recent simplification of tiger taxonomy, with the number of subspecies being redefined as two, rather than nine, making cross-breeding less of an issue.

Main tiger image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic