13 Tiger Countries have vowed to double the number of Wild tigers by 2022 but is it achievable?
100 years ago there were estimated to be over 100,000 tigers in the wild, however in recent decades numbers have plummeted with only 3,200- 3,600 wild adult tigers currently remaining. This is largely due to habitat loss, poaching and human-tiger conflict in countries experiencing severe environmental and economic challenges caused by recent human population growth. In 2010, tiger populations were at an all-time low, with three subspecies having already disappeared and the remaining 6 at severe risk. This prompted the heads of governments of all 13 remaining tiger range countries to convene for an International Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, 2010, resulting in the St. Petersburg declaration1 and the Global Tiger Recovery Program. This ambitious program aims to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022 – the next Chinese year of the tiger using eleven objectives, covering everything from habitat protection, reducing wildlife crime, increasing funding and holding regular high-level meetings to assess the progress of the project. At the summit, each of the 13 tiger range countries were also given a unique action plan with specific recovery priorities from managing tiger habitat to reducing poaching and increasing local awareness. 2016 marks the halfway point of the project and is thus a good time to review the project and discuss whether measures taken so far are appropriate and adequate.
In order to determine whether progress towards the TX2 goal is being made, monitoring and assessment of wild tiger population numbers is essential. In 2014, all tiger range countries agreed to carry out full systematic national surveys to supply an accurate estimate of tiger numbers by 20162. Many countries have completed such surveys with India, Bhutan and Russia all showing increases in numbers compared to previous estimates. Nepal has yet to produce its 2016 systematic survey results, however evidence from their survey in 2014 already showed an increase of 61% in tiger populations3. Similarly, although China has yet to complete a national survey, the use of camera traps has proved to be a useful monitoring method, and in 2015, Siberian tigers – thought to be extinct in the region – were captured for the first time on film. On the other hand, not all countries have produced such positive results. Bangladesh, for example, having completed their first national survey for the 2016 records, noted a 75% decline in wild tiger numbers compared to the national estimate4. However WWF state in their annual report that this is less likely to be due to an actual decline in tigers but more likely due to previous over-estimations based on of less reliable methodology. They are confident that this, up to date baseline is a positive step forward for Bangladesh and its conservation priorities. Data from countries who have submitted their surveys have been added to national estimates and previous surveys from the remaining tiger range countries to produce a new global estimate. As of 2016, wild tiger numbers have increased for the first time, and are now estimated at around 3,8905. This is a huge success for the Tx2 project, but there is still a long way to go, as the population must increase by a further 2,000 individuals to meet the aims set in St Petersburg. It is also vital for the remaining countries to carry out national surveys for the project to continue to succeed.
One of the major reasons for the decline in tiger numbers during the last century has been due to habitat loss, thus one major objective put forward in St Petersburg, 2010 was to “Do everything possible to effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance habitats”1. The aim was to move away from previously unsuccessful small site-based approaches to tiger conservation and move instead towards landscape scale conservation. Tigers are known to breed easily given sheltered habitat, protection and an abundance of prey, thus an increase in the wild population is certainly attainable if these factors are present. Such tiger recovery in the Panna Reserve, India6 inspired the Global Tiger Summit to call for more reserve areas and specific Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCL’s). A study in 2011 indicated that the 324 reserves within all 76 designated TCL’s at the time, covering >380,000km2 had the potential to support >15,000 tigers7. In 2014 the 29 designated priority TCL’s still represented adequate undisturbed land to meet the Tx2 goal, and it was suggested that tiger recovery already underway in these regions would accelerate if further habitat loss was prevented. Indeed one study focusing on the Terai Arc Region in Nepal which encompasses three crucial TCL’s for the Tx2 goal, showed an increase in tree cover of 2.7% since 2002 due to effectively run forestry programmes and community support8. However with Asia to spend an estimated $8.22 trillion on infrastructural and social developments between 2010 and 2020, it is unlikely that habitat loss can be prevented. Infrastructural plans such as the 11,000km of proposed roads and railways through tiger landscapes threaten to cut already fractured habitats into areas too small to sustain minimum tiger populations. Maintaining connectivity between populations is crucial for the survival of the species because while tigers are able to disperse over 100km, they are often reluctant to cross even a few kilometres of unsuitable land. While the protection of tiger habitat and the maintenance of biological corridors were major objectives set out in St. Petersburg, these have so far, clearly not been met.
Due to human-tiger conflict, there are a number of TLC’s which are suitable for tigers but are no longer inhabited by individuals. In these cases, reintroduction has been suggested as an important tool for meeting the Tx2 goal. The Cambodia Eastern Plains landscape is one such area that has been targeted for potential reintroduction or translocation of tigers. In 2013 an in-depth feasibility study was undertaken, and reintroduction was deemed possible, provided prey populations showed recovery in the time leading up to reintroduction9. The scheme proposes a translocation of eight individuals – six females and two males – from ecologically similar wild habitats in India or Nepal using a semi-soft release process. With reintroduction planned in 2019, modelling indicates that the population could reach >25 individuals by 202910. While this may be beyond the Tx2 deadline, it could be a vital step for the future conservation of tigers and further reintroduction efforts. Previously, tiger reintroduction has shown promising results, as demonstrated in the Panna Tiger Reserve, India. Tigers became extinct in the reserve in 2006 due to poor management and extensive poaching. During the last 8 years, 7 individuals have been translocated, including two re-wilded females. The reserve showed remarkable recovery and now holds 32 tigers10. Nevertheless, reintroductions continue to be expensive and complex conservation strategies and once individuals have been reintroduced, the site must be managed and protected effectively ensuring the continued survival of both tigers and prey species. Such as in the Panna Tiger Reserve, tiger poaching continues to be a big problem throughout Asia, and these problems must be resolved before successful reintroduction can occur. The St Petersburg Declaration proposed to combat wildlife crime and poaching using programmes such as ‘Zero Poaching’ which have so far been relatively successful. Russia, India and Nepal have more than 70% of proposed anti-poaching mechanisms in place and Nepal successfully managed to achieve zero poaching of tigers in 201410. Poaching, however continues to be one of the biggest threats facing the future of tigers, therefore stronger political commitment and more intense groundwork is certainly needed to ensure the success of the Tx2 project.
In terms of the success of the Tx2 project so far, action has been taken towards each of the 11 aims set out in the St. Petersburg Declaration. Some of these aims have been already been achieved such as mobilising funding, engaging communities and holding regular meetings while other aims, such as reducing wildlife crime and monitoring populations are well underway. Considering this, along with the fact that tiger numbers have increased by more than 20% since the start of the project, it could be said that so far the project has been a major success. On the other hand, habitat protection and the maintenance of wildlife corridors which could be considered the most crucial aim for the Tx2 project, has not yet been achieved and Asia’s growing population and increase in infrastructure will make this very difficult to accomplish in the future. In order to achieve the Tx2 goal, tiger numbers must increase by a further 54% within the next six years. While this is not an impossible task, it can only be achieved by continuing political momentum towards the project and a stronger commitment to habitat protection and the other aims of the St Petersburg Declaration.
- Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation. (2010). 1st ed. [PDF] St Petersburg: Global Tiger Initiative Consortium. Available at: http://globaltigerinitiative.org/publication/st-petersburg-declaration-on-tiger-conservation/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2016].
- Dhaka Recommendations on Advancing Implementation of the Global Tiger Recovery Program. (2014). In: 2nd Stocktaking Conference to Review Implementation of the Global Tiger Recovery Program. [online] Dhaka: Global Tiger Initiative. Available at: http://globaltigerinitiative.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Dhaka-Recommendations.pdf [Accessed 28 Nov. 2016].
- Dhakal, M., Karki, T., M., Jnawali, S., R., Subedi, N., Pradhan, N., M., Malla, S., Lamichhane, B., R., Pokheral, C., P., Thapa, G., J., Oglethorpe, J., Subba, S., A., Bajracharya, P., R., Yadav, H. (2014). Status of Tigers and Prey in Nepal(Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Kathmandu, Nepal)
- Background Document: Global wild tiger population status, April 2016. (2016). 1st ed. [PDF] WWF. Available at: http://globaltigerinitiative.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Background-Document-Wild-Tiger-Status-2016.pdf [Accessed 29 Nov. 2016].
- WWF Tigers. (2016). About Tx2, WWF’s global tiger programme – WWF Tigers. [online] Available at: http://tigers.panda.org/tx2/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2016].
- Ramesh K., Johnson J.A., Sen S., Murthy R.S., Sarkar M.S., Malviya M., Bhardwaj S., Naveen M., Roamin S., Parihar V.S. and Gupta S., (2013). Status of tiger and prey species in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh: capture-recapture and distance sampling estimates. Technical Report. Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. Pp 39
- Wikramanayake, E., Dinerstein, E., Seidensticker, J., Lumpkin, S., Pandav, B., Shrestha, M., Mishra, H., Ballou, J., Johnsingh, A., Chestin, I., Sunarto, S., Thinley, P., Thapa, K., Jiang, G., Elagupillay, S., Kafley, H., Pradhan, N., Jigme, K., Teak, S., Cutter, P., Aziz, M., Than, U. (2011). A landscape-based conservation strategy to double the wild tiger population. Conservation Letters, 4(3), pp.219-227.
- Joshi, A., Dinerstein, E., Wikramanayake, E., Anderson, M., Olson, D., Jones, B., Seidensticker, J., Lumpkin, S., Hansen, M., Sizer, N., Davis, C., Palminteri, S. and Hahn, N. (2016). Tracking changes and preventing loss in critical tiger habitat. Science Advances, 2(4), pp.e1501675-e1501675.
- IUCN, WWF, (2013). Preliminary Study of the Feasibility of a Tiger Restoration Programme in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains [online] WWF. Available at: http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/feasibility_study_reintroduction_jan_2013__1_.pdf [Accessed 4 Dec. 2016].
- (2016). Bringing Back Cambodia’s Roar: REINTRODUCING TIGERS TO THE EASTERN PLAINS. [online] Available at: https://wwf.be/assets/Uploads/Images/PROJECTS/Mondulkiri/cambodia-tiger-reintroduction-brochure.pdf [Acessed 04 Dec. 2016].