In the past few weeks since the Netflix series “Tiger King” first aired, I have done nonstop interviews about the shameful commercial breeding of tigers in the United States in the name of “conservation.”
As someone who’s devoted my entire career to saving this magnificent species in the wild, I find this exploitation appalling, but as bad as it is, the tiger crisis in U.S. backyards pales in comparison to the one playing out in the wild.
Ten years ago, in the previous Year of the Tiger, the Global Tiger Recovery Programme was launched with a bold promise to double global tiger numbers by 2022, an initiative known as TX2. All 13 tiger range states committed to TX2, kicking off a massive push to raise $536 million to fund priority actions.
With just two years to go before the TX2 deadline, it’s time to ask: “How are tigers doing?” The answer: “Better in some places, as best we can tell, but really, really poorly in others; certainly not on track to double rangewide by 2022, and definitely still the most endangered big cat.”
Such an answer is not the stuff of press release headlines. And certainly not what one would hope or expect given the level of fanfare and global financial support TX2 has received. While we must continue increasing tiger numbers, now a focus in every range state, it’s time to set our collective sights on a different way to measure progress: rather than attempt to count every tiger out there, we need to monitor trends in tiger numbers as an indicator of effectiveness of conservation interventions.
Globally, TX2 is a goal that we cannot realistically measure. Tigers are cryptic, elusive and inhabit some of the most inaccessible corners of the world, and while scientists are very good at estimating numbers in smaller areas such as national parks, rangewide estimates are little more than expert opinion.
Further, the TX2 timeline is unrealistic. A recent study by Dr. Abishek Harihar predicted that, based on tiger and prey reproductive rates and the time it takes to implement the necessary counter-poaching and community engagement strategies, getting to TX2 would take about 30 years in most cases.
Chasing an unmeasurable goal and rushing to show progress against it risk masking the reality on the ground: despite some notable successes, tigers are still in dire straits in most places. The good news is that tigers are increasing in India and Nepal. With strong commitments from their governments, both countries have developed and implemented conservation models that are reducing poaching and allowing tigers to recover, dramatically at some sites, like Manas National Park in India and Parsa National Park in Nepal.
However, Southeast Asia’s tigers are in big trouble. Myanmar has but one tiny population of fewer than 20 tigers. Poaching and deforestation are threatening Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s tigers, with some predicting the extinction of the Malayan tiger within 3-5 years. Thailand has the only breeding population of Indochinese tigers left; the subspecies has gone extinct in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since the turn of the century.
To reverse these trends and demonstrate the kind of progress that is unassailable and sustainable, we need the kind of commitment the late Alan Rabinowitz had in mind in 2006 when he challenged a roomful of scientists to cast aside notions of only stopping the decline and get cracking on a plan to increase tiger numbers.
Based on conservation successes in India and elsewhere, the plan was ambitious and grounded in science. It developed into the world’s most recognized, widely adopted and proven method for recovering tigers by focusing on well-connected networks of inviolate source sites with room for 70 or more tigers. The approach is relatively inexpensive: the cost to lock down a single viable source site averages around $1 million per year, in addition to local government spending.
To address critical threats, experts working together on-the-ground have developed cost-effective, measurable solutions against which we can track real progress. Training local rangers in intelligence-led policing and wildlife technology helps them stay one step ahead of poachers and bring criminals to justice. Offering local people alternatives to the resources they rely on from protected areas improves their health and wealth while reducing pressure on tiger habitat.
Corridors allowing tigers to move between protected areas are critical to long-term genetic viability. Maintaining these is more complex, but still well-understood, requiring careful planning for and management of resource extraction, livestock grazing, human-tiger conflict, and infrastructure development.
On a global scale, dismantling poaching syndicates and the illegal wildlife trade must go hand in hand with reducing demand for wildlife products primarily for Traditional Asian Medicine—a cultural shift that may take generations. The impacts of illegal wildlife trade have never been more evident as the world sits paralyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which likely originated at a wildlife market.
And while the direct interventions to recover tigers will be most resource-intensive, all of these efforts must be sustained indefinitely to prevent backsliding and suppress persistent threats from poaching, encroachment and habitat destruction, as well as sustained management of human-tiger conflict where populations have recovered.
We need to cheer successes like India’s and Nepal’s as signs that the science-based conservation methods they have adopted are working. But we need to be careful not to claim “mission accomplished” too soon lest Southeast Asia’s tigers continue their quiet decline into oblivion.
The threats to tigers are as intense as ever. Yet, in the years since the Global Tiger Initiative announced it had nearly met its half a billion dollar goal, funding for on-the-ground tiger conservation has been harder and harder to come by.
Only a handful of donors understand that tiger recovery — as for any endangered species — is a marathon, not a sprint. Over more than a decade, these investors have seeded new initiatives like SMART, PoacherCam advanced camera technology and elite ranger training methods that are now in use by the world’s leading conservation practitioners across tiger range.
They have encouraged innovation and embraced risk with confidence in a strategy founded in science. Their investments are paying off in ways we can accurately measure — upward trends in tiger numbers — and are helping to fuel sustained tiger recovery.
We have to act now to focus global investment like a laser on proven tiger conservation solutions in areas where tigers are most threatened before the next Year of the Tiger in 2022. What a terrible irony it will be if while celebrating a perceived victory, we miss our opportunity to deliver on the ambition of tigers forever.