Tigers may avoid extinction, but we must aim higher (commentary)

Tigers may avoid extinction, but we must aim higher (commentary)

Having spent 27 years as a wild cat scientist, I have been fortunate to run my fingers through the coarse fur of a 170 kg tiger while wrapping a GPS collar around its neck. Even better luck, I’ve lived to tell the tale of a tiger mauling after an unsuccessful collaring expedition. Suffice it to say, I live and breathe tigers.

But even I was extremely skeptical that the world could achieve the grandly ambitious goal set at the 2010 Global Tiger Summit of doubling tiger numbers, or reaching 6,000 individuals, by 2022. At the time, just 3,200 wild tigers remained. The Global Tiger Summit goal was almost facetious, and a 30-year trajectory was far more realistic.

Due to recent successes, however, I’ve changed my tune. Just recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s flora and fauna conservation authority, published a Red List Assessment for tigers, suggesting the species’ numbers have likely increased by 40%, from 3,200 in 2015 to 4,500 in 2022. I have genuinely not been this enthusiastic about the species’ future in decades.

But before exclaiming “mission accomplished,” let’s put this victory into context. Data suggest there are more wild tigers, but this may be due to scientists doing a better job of counting them. Nevertheless, the take-home message is that global tiger numbers have not declined and have possibly increased since the last IUCN assessment in 2015, which is a remarkable achievement against stacked odds.

We certainly haven’t doubled tiger numbers, but setting this target alone was a pivotal moment in tiger conservation. Had we settled on maintaining tiger numbers, IUCN’s news might center around the species being one step closer to ‘extinct in the wild’. It is because of the overly ambitious goal set by 13 range state governments in 2010, coupled with dogged anti-poaching initiatives, that we are cautiously celebrating a win for the species.

When tiger range states and scientists gather this year for the second Global Tiger Summit, we must take stock of this unusual success. To ensure tigers never again reach extinction’s brink, we must develop a new 12-year tiger recovery plan that sets an equally aspirational goal, holding the feet of the global community to the fire and maximizing international collaboration, innovation and funding. Of paramount importance in the next tiger recovery goal is an increase in geographic range, previously ignored at the first Global Tiger Summit, along with a surge in the global tiger population.

Reality check

To be clear, the tiger is still classified as ‘endangered.’ It has lost 93% of its range, and tiger numbers have crashed from 100,000 a century ago. Poaching, habitat destruction and conflict with people make recent successes fragile.

Yet, South Asia’s tigers are gaining numbers, particularly in India and Nepal, from where new population estimates are expected any day. In Northeast Asia, numbers are stable in Russia and likely increasing in China, where the federation borders China. But the remains of the fragmented tiger populations in Southeast Asia are at extremely high risk.

To our benefit, the recipe for tiger conservation success is tried and true: buttressed by government and community health, safety and buy-in, we must give tigers space, protect said spaces from poaching and scale-up.

All eyes are on Malaysia to do just that, where tigers have plummeted to under 150 individuals country-wide due to intense poaching. For the first time in decades, Malaysia’s government has committed to a concerted effort to save the species by creating an emergency National Tiger Conservation Task Force, chaired by the prime minister. Eradicating poaching is priority one with an injection of 1,400 pairs of boots on the ground establishing a near-constant presence across tiger landscapes. Men and women from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the Royal Malaysian Police, expert trackers from Orang Asli Indigenous communities, army veterans and NGOs comprise this impressive alliance. The country has also committed to new protected area developments, as well as increasing forest cover from 43% to 50% in Peninsular Malaysia by 2040.

Malaysia’s invigorated resolve gives me hope, as does deep-forest anti-poaching and crime science innovations extended to the two and four-legged. The country’s first-ever K9 tracking unit includes a Belgian Malinois who has, remarkably, been trained to sniff out poachers’ wire snares. Anti-poaching teams have also pioneered developments in counter-poaching tactics and rigorous ranger training, including night-tracking and close-target reconnaissance; innovated wildlife crime analysis techniques; and utilized novel vigilance metrics to improve ranger patrol planning. The modus operandi of sophisticated poaching groups operating for months in Malaysian forests are now carefully studied so rangers can track and predict poaching gang movements.

These efforts have increased the likelihood of poaching gang arrests in the Kenyir-Taman Negara Core Area, shortened their windows of operation and removed snares before they could kill tigers. From 2015 to 2019, the odds of a poaching gang being detained in the region also shrank from one in 20 to one in three, and the odds of escape from law enforcement shortened from over five to one to under two to one.

Malaysia and Thailand have further increased eyes in the wild utilizing Poachercams, which alert law enforcement of protected area intruders in real-time and have led to the apprehension of over a dozen poachers. The tide for tigers is turning.

A New Era of Alliances

NGO competition for funding, territory and data has long cast a shadow on tiger conservation. But for the first time in the history of the field, six tiger conservation leaders have formed a coalition to develop shared goals, strategies and a unified voice for the species. This level of collaboration is unparalleled and is already making progress via the latest IUCN assessment, wildlife crime and policy research, and consistent, rather than conflicting, messaging to Asian governments regarding priority tiger populations and strategies.

Locking down long-term funding streams that support this newfound collaboration is one of the coalition’s critical, but most challenging, tenets. Just as the conservation community is establishing new practices, the funding community must replace old habits of giving to individual organizations, which encourages competition and silos, with those rewarding collaborative initiatives between multiple organizations. We, too, within the conservation community must have our feet held to the fire.

This article by John Goodrich was first published by Mongabay.com on 22 July 2022. John Goodrich serves as the Chief Scientist for Panthera, leading their cat conservation science and strategy. Lead Image: A tiger in Russia. Image courtesy of Panthera.

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