A few years ago, I helped collar a Bengal tiger and translocate him back into the wild in Bardia National Park in Nepal. After, we tracked him for months, using data from his GPS collar. Tracking his movements, we saw him explore Bardia, establish a territory and circle a potential mate. And then one day, his signal stopped moving. We knew this might happen. Our team only found the collar. All signs indicate he was killed and sold off, piece by piece, to fuel Asia’s growing market for illegal wildlife products. Every part of the tiger—from teeth to tail—is sold on the black market for reasons that vary from folk medicine uses (tiger bone), luxury items (skins and tiger bone wine) and good luck omens (whiskers).
Between 1900 and 2010, the world lost 97% of its wild tigers. The best science in 2010 estimated as few as 3,200 wild tigers remained across their entire range. This crisis was a wake-up call and prompted the 13 tiger range countries to come together with WWF (the organization I lead) and other partners and commit to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. But tigers are only one part of a terrible unfolding story. According to WWF’s Living Planet Report, populations of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish—have declined by more than half in the past 40 years.
To bring tigers back, there are two fundamentals: you need to end poaching and the black market demand that drives it, and you need to provide healthy habitats with sufficient space and prey. For the past six years since the Tiger Summit—hosted by Russia and the World Bank, with notable participants, such as WWF board member and Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation chairman, Leonardo DiCaprio—we’ve seen governments, NGOs, corporations, and individuals redouble their efforts. And those efforts are paying off.
For the first time—after more than a century of constant decline—global wild tiger numbers reversed their downward spiral and are now on the rise.
According to the most recent data, we believe about 3,900 tigers now exist in the wild, up from the 3,200 alive in 2010. This is big. Tiger numbers are up in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Russia. Our strategies are pointing us in the right direction. While we have a long way to go, particularly in areas like Southeast Asia, if we can accelerate current progress we just might reach our goal. And if we can do this for tigers, we believe we can do this for other species as well.
Here’s what we’ve learned are the essential ingredients of success:
The most powerful deterrent against poachers are people. Nepal’s more than 400 anti-poaching units work throughout the country, patrolling critical wildlife corridors and providing vital information on illegal activity. In 2013, when Ramchandra Tripathi, a notorious rhino horn smuggler, was captured, it was because more than 200 villagers handed him over to the authorities. In places like Thailand, Vietnam, and China, it's critical to recruit unexpected allies, like Buddhist monks and successful entrepreneurs, to change consumer attitudes towards luxury products made from tigers and reduce black market demand. The economic value of tiger tourism is so great in areas with healthy tiger populations that the travel and hospitality industry are among the best tiger advocates; tour operators and resort owners near Pench Tiger Reserve in India recently organized to demand a better response to a spate of tiger deaths.
Anti-poaching law enforcers are able to initiate rapid responses to poaching threats based on real-time data gathered from smartphones and cameras. Rangers on the ground are using Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tools (SMART) to identify poaching hotspots. Earlier this year, WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology team traveled to Kenya to pilot the use of thermal infrared cameras to catch poachers at night. Pairing security software with the cameras, they could distinguish between humans and animal movement and send real-time alerts only when poachers were identified. It’s cutting edge technology that was initially field-tested on a dairy farm in Maryland.
Every time we protect a tiger, we protect at least 25,000 acres of existing forest, sequester carbon, and restore forests for other species and local communities. Bhutan’s forests absorb three times more CO2 emissions than they create, enabling the country to be carbon negative. Those same forests are home to more than 100 wild tigers that roam freely throughout the country’s network of connected parks, nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries. Similarly, the forests in southern Nepal constitute 138 tons of carbon stock per hectare of tiger forests. Additionally, the ecosystem services provided by intact tiger forests have direct, tangible, daily benefits for the local communities living near them. For instance, sub-basins—small areas drained by streams or rivers—within tiger landscapes serve as water towers, releasing disproportionate amounts of precious freshwater for drinking and irrigation to downstream users.
Major investments in counting the invisible
From counting pug marks (paw prints), to using camera traps and DNA samples, the task of surveying tigers is becoming increasingly sophisticated as we have more technology at our fingertips. But even with technology, surveying tigers requires significant manpower. For instance, India’s 2014 survey of more than 300,000 sq km required more than 280,000 man hours and 650 camera traps. Surveys are an important part of our work, especially for a species like the majestically elusive tiger.
Leadership at highest level
The countries where we see the greatest political will to save tigers are the same countries where we’re seeing tigers begin to bounce back. For instance, the Indian government is investing more resources than ever before in tiger conservation, and is actually planning new reserves to accommodate growing tiger numbers as they disperse from existing protected areas. Last fall in Russia, the government created Bikin National Park, protecting a forest known as "the Russian Amazon" and home to 10% of the Amur tiger population. And just last week, Cambodia endorsed a national tiger action plan that paves the way for one of the most revolutionary ideas in conservation: the reintroduction of wild tigers into a country where they're considered functionally extinct.
And even halfway around the world, the U.S. took steps last week to strengthen regulation of captive tigers held in America’s backyards and private breeding facilities to make it more difficult for captive-bred tigers to filter into and stimulate the illegal wildlife trade that threatens wild tigers in Asia.
Numbers matter. Numbers build credibility. And numbers inspire. In Bardia National Park, other tigers have flourished with increased conservation efforts, including one female who gave birth to a set of four cubs; we are optimistic that the final results of a just-completed survey there will show great progress towards doubling tigers.
If we collectively can change the trajectory for a species like tigers—greatly prized on the black market, easily poached, and fearsome to many who live near them—it gives me hope for what else we can accomplish for other species we cannot afford to lose.