The number of wild tigers has been rising, but more needs to be done to save them.
For the first time in a century, conservationists recently announced, the number of wild tigers throughout some of their ranges in Southeast Asia has been rising, if only ever so slightly.
In 2014, conservation groups counted a total of wild 3,890 tigers from India to Russia to Thailand (but with the exception of Myanmar, which, too, likely has dozens of uncounted tigers). Admittedly, the tally is based on figures from a few years ago yet it is a significant increase on the 3,200 tigers (from all the six extant subspecies) counted in 2010.
But the devil, to coin a phrase, is in the details. More than half of the globe’s wild tigers – 2,226, according to recent figures – live in India, a country that has made exemplary progress in boosting the number of its endemic Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) in recent years.
By contrast, however, several other subspecies have been doing rather less well. Thailand boasts an estimated 189 Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) in the wild, according to the 2014 survey, but in nearby Vietnam’s shrinking forests fewer than five of the country’s own tigers, from the same subspecies, have been spared from poachers and habitat loss.
In neighboring Cambodia, meanwhile, wild tigers, which too belonged to the same subspecies, were recently been declared extinct. In Laos, which borders Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, tigers are likewise on their way out with possibly only two of them left in the wild.
In Malaysia too the nation’s iconic and endemic tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni) have fallen on hard times. Somewhere between 250 and 340 of them have remained clinging on in their diminishing habitats and dodging poachers’ snares in the process. That’s a mere tenth of the estimated 3,000 Malayan tigers inhabiting the country’s forests a half century ago. Almost all of the country’s tigers now live in protected habitats within just four states. The country’s National Tiger Action Plan, launched in 2008, set out to boost the number of Malayan tigers in the wild to 1,000 by 2020, but that target will not be met by a long shot.
For inspiration, countries in the region with diminishing tiger populations can look to Thailand. The Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the western part of the country is the only place in Southeast Asia where the numbers of wild tigers have been growing. The local tiger population has grown by 50% over the past decade, which makes it a rare success story in the region.
Part of the secret is that the Thai wildlife sanctuary has one rangers for every 10 square kilometers. In India, meanwhile, some areas with wild tiger populations boast one range for every 2 square kilometers. In many other countries there are fewer rangers still. Making matters worse is that many of them are unarmed and underfunded, which makes them unable to deal with rampant poaching.
Without stepped-up anti-poaching measures, no country can save its tigers and ensure their long-term survival in the wild. “The key issue,” noted Anak Pattanavibool, a Thai wildlife expert, is the need for the region’s countries “to strengthen their protection first.” Otherwise, he explained, even efforts to reintroduce tigers into the wild, such as a $50-million initiative Cambodia is working on, are bound to fail: no sooner will tigers be reintroduced than they will come to be at risk of being poached.
Even in Thailand a 12-year Tiger Action Plan has thus far failed to boost the population of tigers outside the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary beyond the current level of somewhere between 200 and 250 animals. One reason is that protection efforts have not been universally effective and rigorously applied.
“If you add enough park rangers in the system,” explained Anak, “you [still] have to have [viable] populations of tigers remaining to be able to recover them. So that’s the problem with many national parks in Thailand at the moment.” In addition, many Thai rangers already have their hands full with other tasks, such as helping manage tourism to national parks, so they have little enough time left for anti-poaching patrols.
All of these issues apply equally to other countries as well. They will need to enact comprehensive conservationist policies that allow the country’s tigers to come roaring back. Without those, the planet’s iconic striped predators are facing very bleak prospects.