Wild tiger populations have plummeted by 97pc in the past 100 or so years, with India’s mangroves, Russia’s snow-covered plains and south-east Asia’s dense rainforests down to their final 3,200. The WWF’s Mike Baltzer, though, is hoping to reverse that trend.
Tigers are an unlucky species for one key reason: they are beautiful. With that comes humanity’s want, followed by the possible extinction of one of the great apex predators of our time.
Extinction, though, with an asterix. In an almighty mind-bend, the number of tigers in captivity outnumbers those in the wild many times over.
For example, 5,000 are thought to be in private ownership in the US alone. China, for its part, has up to 6,000 in ‘tiger farms’ where they are bred for parts, trophies, etc.
Between those two numbers, that’s almost four times what we have in the wild, most of which live in India.
Tiger conservation: halting the decline
Countries in its north-eastern region, like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, offer a home to a slender corridor that is seeing declining numbers finally slow to a halt.
“That’s an amazing accomplishment,” says Baltzer, an Englishman charged with heading up the WWF’s Tigers Alive initiative.
“In India, the main reason why they invest so heavily is simply because they have a national pride for tigers,” he explains, from his new office in Singapore. “A strong natural reverence.”
Governmental inclusion is key. 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”, says Baltzer – an optimistic goal, but one that was needed.
“Without such an aspirational target, attempts aren’t as big,” he explains, “which is what was happening, and numbers were dropping.”
The drop, he hopes, has stopped. World Tiger Day last month saw national survey results emerging from many of the 13 wild tiger housing countries.
India’s numbers are up to 2,200, for example, while Russia and Bhutan also saw rises.
A documentary to remember
Bhutanese numbers are interesting because, back in 2010, the BBC produced a fantastic documentary on the extreme conditions that tigers were living in within the country.
Discovering tigers in areas previously thought of as devoid of the predator was a major achievement, but, as Baltzer explains, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“The Bhutanese already knew there were tigers,” he says of the show. “The documentary popularised it, though.
“The significance was they were found at a very high elevation. Nobody thought they could live so high up in the mountains.
“The extraordinary thing is they can live in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in India. In Russia they live in -50 degrees cold. They even live in the rainforests of south-east Asia.
Technology is key
“They are remarkably versatile,” he says. However, their numbers are falling in places.
Bangladesh has 106, less than a quarter of the 440 estimated a decade ago, but Baltzer is still confident thanks to the introduction of newer equipment, making the readings accurate at the very least.
“Technology is making a huge difference, particularly in surveys,” he says.
“Most are done using camera traps, now. The fact that these are getting cheaper, lighter and more reliable, providing more accurate data, including night visions, is making the counting much easier and far more accurate.”
Numbers, numbers, numbers
Accuracy, though, isn’t across the board. South-east Asian countries, hamstrung by dense rainforest habitats that make it incredibly costly to survey numbers, aren’t providing any data for the WWF to work with.
“We need to do it in one big push. We’re working blind at the moment,” says Baltzer, whose love affair with tigers began, like most of ours, when he was a child.
With posters on his bedroom wall, Baltzer always dreamed of tropical conservation, so, after studying environmental studies in the UK, he packed his bags and off he went.
Leading the Tigers Alive initiative since 2009, Baltzer has seen positive signs for an animal loved the world over. However, it’s the challenges of years to come that trouble him most.
A scary future awaits
“Stopping poaching and educating people on the relationship between tigers and humans are issues that are simple to deal with, with proper investment, support and technological know-how,” he says.
“But the bigger challenge is the development of Asia. The region where tigers live is the same region that is going to have the largest human populations in the world soon.
“Massive funds will be going into infrastructure, dams, forestry. Finding solutions in a future Asia will be a big challenge.
“We are hoping to show the link between tiger conservation and looking after the forest as a green development.”
It’s going to a be a big ask, but at least governments are trying to get their act together. “I’m very optimistic,” says Baltzer.
He should know.
All images via WWF, Alain Compost, David Lawson and Straffan Widstrand