How Many Tigers Are There Really? A Conservation Mystery

A World Wildlife Fund report last week about increasing tiger numbers has been criticized as 'a disservice to conservation.'

Our open Jeep fishtailed along muddy roads through northeast India’s Kaziranga National Park. A herd of chitral deer sounded their chirping alarm call and fled.  We pulled into a clearing beneath a silk cotton tree, and a massive male Bengal tiger emerged from a wall of elephant grass. He sauntered across the expanse and disappeared on the other side.

That was 2008, and I was in India to report on a shocking new census: 60 percent of the nation’s tigers had vanished during the previous five years.

But that wasn’t really the case: Previous estimates of their numbers had been vastly overestimated. This was the first time the Indian government had used the scientifically sound camera-trapping method to count tigers, remotely capturing images in which individual animals could be identified by their unique stripe patterns. The previous method used spoor (paw prints, also called pugmarks, and scat), which often led to the same animal being counted multiple times.

A Sumatran tiger peers at a camera trap it triggered in the forests of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Tiger experts say that a recent report revealing a growth in tiger numbers had methodological flaws.  [Photograph By Steve Winter, National Geographic Creative]

With tigers, it’s always a numbers game. The latest controversy surfaced on April 10 when the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum announced that “for the first time in 100 years, tiger numbers are growing.” Using estimates from tiger range countries, they reported that the population had jumped from 3,200 in 2010 to 3,890 today—and is on track to double within a decade.

International media outlets trumpeted the news. But within days, four top tiger biologists issued a joint “statement of concern” countering the jubilation with criticism of the report’s accuracy and conclusions. “Glossing over serious methodological flaws, or weak and incomplete data, to generate feel-good ‘news’ is a disservice to conservation,” they wrote.

Chinese authorities confiscated these tiger skins. The animals' largest threat is poaching to feed demand for tiger products. [Photograph By Xi Zhinong, Minden Pictures/National Geographic]

Better camera trapping, and DNA analysis, in places like Bhutan did indeed find some new tigers, and expanded surveys in India now include tigers living outside reserves.

But counting cats in previously undocumented areas doesn’t mean they’re rebounding—it just means more complete data, notes John Goodrich, one of the statement’s authors who’s also the director of the tiger program at Panthera, an NGO dedicated to big cat conservation. Given the elusiveness of tigers and the rough, remote lands they inhabit, we’ll never know exactly how many there are, he says.

Each country uses different methods, and some are questionable. Russia’s researchers have counted Siberian tigers’ pugmarks—the same technique that led to India’s pre-2008 overestimates. Nepal’s data are three years old; Sumatra’s date from 2011. Last year, India’s foremost tiger biologist, Ullas Karanth, contested the mathematical models used to estimate his country’s tiger population, casting doubt on the 30-percent rise in numbers.

India is the largest remaining stronghold of the wild tiger and is home to 520 of the 690 “new” tigers counted in last week’s report. With considerable human effort, money, and political will, tigers are slowly recovering in large, well-protected landscapes with plenty of prey, particularly in reserves in central India, in the Himalayan foothills, and amid the mountains of the Western Ghats.

'What Are We Celebrating?'

Overall, tigers are in peril, says Prerna Bindra, a former member of India’s National Board for Wildlife. “What worries me is that [this report] gives a sense of complacency.” Tigers have gone virtually extinct in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia since 2010, and some of India’s most important tiger landscapes are doomed by dams, mining, and other infrastructure, she says. “So what are we celebrating?”

At the turn of the 20th century some 100,000 tigers roamed throughout Asia. Today tigers are scattered across 7 percent of their former range, often in small “island” populations whose isolation puts them at risk of becoming inbred and imperils their long-term survival.

Tigers are not a single species, so the actual number of tigers must be divided among the five subspecies remaining in the wild. Assessed that way, their situation is even more precarious. Some 2,633 Bengal tigers live in Nepal, Bhutan, and India. The paltry remainder—1,257 tigers—is split among the other four subspecies: Siberian, Indochinese, Malay, and Sumatran. These tigers are almost extinct.

The greatest threat? “It’s poaching,” says Goodrich, adding that with the cats hunted out of 40 percent of their range in the past five years, nearly 1,000,000 square kilometers of perfectly good habitat lies vacant—an area the size of Egypt.

Demand for tiger parts is skyrocketing. “India's tiger poaching and seizure figures for the first quarter of 2016 are the highest in the past 15 years,” says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Tiger expert Judith Mills explains why. “The overarching problem is that very powerful forces continue to stimulate demand for tiger products, particularly in China, where an estimated 6,000 tigers live on farms, waiting to be turned into rugs, tiger-bone wine, and high-status entrées,” she said. That demand means that every wild tiger has a price on its head.

These businesses exist in violation of a 2007 decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a treaty signed by 182 nations, that tiger farms should be phased out and tigers should not be commercially bred.

Tigers occupy only 7 percent of their former range. [Photograph By Steve Winter, National Geographic Creative]

Meanwhile China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee is considering an amendment to its 1989 wildlife law that would legitimize commercialization of captive wildlife, allowing government agencies to license the breeding and trade of endangered species.

So it’s not yet time to pop the champagne, but experts agree that if demand for tiger products can be cut soon and tigers in key breeding sites protected, these magnificent animals can still be saved.

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