Wild Tiger Populations Stabilizing, Groups Say

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
November 22, 2002
Eight years ago, some conservationists feared the worst for the world's
wild tiger populations. Three of eight tiger subspecies had already gone
extinct. Rampant poaching and habitat destruction appeared poised to
consume the rest.

But this week a panel of wildlife biologists and conservation advocates sounded a more positive note.

"World populations of tigers have stabilized," said John Robinson, director of international conservation programs for The Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit conservation organization based at the Bronx Zoo in New York. He was speaking Thursday at a press conference organized by the Save the Tiger Fund, a consortium of private environmental groups and U.S. government wildlife management agencies formed in 1995 to protect wild tiger populations. To date, the fund has spent U.S. $10 million dollars on tiger research and conservation, funding 196 programs in 13 countries.

"I think tigers are better off where we've invested time and money wisely," said Steven Galster, a specialist in conservation law enforcement now working in Southeast Asia for WildAid, a nonprofit environmental and human rights organization based in San Francisco.

Today there are between 5,000 to 7,500 tigers in the wild, according to estimates by the World Conservation Union. That figure represents a fraction of the 100,000 tigers found in the wild at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the Save the Tiger Fund. Of the five tiger subspecies that remain—the Amur or Siberian, Bengal, Indochinese, South China, and Sumatran—all are endangered throughout their range. Poaching and habitat loss continue to pose the greatest threats to wild tiger populations today.

Compared to a decade ago, today there is more science available to the conservation community to better understand tiger habitat needs, panelists said.

K. Ullas Karanth, a conservation zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society working to conserve Bengal tiger populations in his native India, said that new research is having a profound impact on tiger management today.

"A female tigress raising cubs in some of the productive areas we work in requires about 15 square kilometers [6 square miles] of space. In the Russian Far East, the same tigress requires about 500 square kilometers [190 square miles]," said Karanth. "If you don't have this key piece of information gathered accurately, measured accurately, the conservation plans that you draw will not succeed."

The Poaching Crisis

In the early 1990s, there was wide evidence to suggest that poachers were killing tigers at a rapid pace. Most were hunted to supply the demand for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, according to Ginette Hemley, a vice president with the World Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization based in Washington, D.C.

Tiger whiskers, eyes, brains, tails, and bones, in particular, are used in traditional remedies believed to cure ailments ranging from toothache to epilepsy. They are sold in markets in China, greater Asia, and the United States, which is home to large numbers of Asian immigrants and is the second largest market for tiger-based traditional Chinese medicinal products outside of China.

Efforts to curb demand for tiger products in China, the United States, and other markets appear to be gaining traction, according to the Save the Tiger Fund. World Wildlife Fund officials have been working with the Chinese government to address that country's demand for tiger-derivative medicinal products. "We have seen a major shift in attitudes at the highest level of government that is having a big impact," said Hemley.

In eastern Russia, poachers were killing between 50 to 70 Siberian tigers a year, according to the Save the Tiger Fund. In 1994, only 200 to 250 of the tigers remained in the wild by some estimates. The rapid population decline prompted some conservationists to take extreme measures to staunch the loss.

Steven Galster, the conservation law enforcement specialist, working independently at the time in eastern Russia, hired former Russian soldiers to break up poaching rings. He later established community outreach programs designed to raise awareness and support for tiger conservation.

Galster's efforts, coupled with those of the Russian government, local residents, and outside conservation organizations, appear to have stabilized the Siberian tiger population in eastern Russia today. Tiger poaching in the region had declined by as much 60 percent by the late 1990s, according to estimates by the Save the Tiger Fund. The World Conservation Union estimates that there are between 360 to 406 Siberian tigers in the wild today. Some put that number slightly higher. An additional 500 Siberian tigers are held in captive breeding programs in zoos around the world.

Lost Habitat

If poaching has been a lead punch, habitat loss has been a following blow in a one-two combination that has pummeled wild tiger populations in past years.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra today, wholesale logging of commercial forests for tropical timber continues at a staggering pace. Newsweek reported last year that at the present rate, commercial forests on the island would be logged out by 2005. The impact of this widespread loss of habitat on the native Sumatran tiger, which by some estimates numbers no more than 400 cats, would be grave, biologists say.

But despite such extreme cases, conservationists at this week's panel see many opportunities to protect remaining tiger habitats around the world. The landscapes where the tiger are found today are the most ecologically complete ecosystems still intact on the planet, said John Seidensticker, a senior curator at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

"If we're able to protect the existing wild areas we have left, we can increase the world tiger population ten-fold," said John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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