More money has been spent on tiger conservation than on preserving any other species in the world, yet wildlife biologists have been seemingly unable to stop the decline of the iconic big cat in the face of poaching and habitat loss.
That appeared to change Tuesday, when the government of India—the country is home to most of the world's wild tigers—announced preliminary results of the latest tiger census that reveal a surge in the number of the big cats in its preserves over the past seven years.
India's environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, announced that its scientists had counted 2,226 wild tigers in the country, up from 1,411 seven years ago, a rise of nearly 58 percent. The country now hosts about 70 percent of the world's wild tigers, Javadekar said, calling the increase "a great achievement … the result of the combined efforts of passionate officers, forest guards, and community participation."
"The tiger community is thrilled to finally hear some good news," says Sharon Guynup, an author who writes about tigers, including co-authoring the recent book Tigers Forever for National Geographic.
A new global survey of tiger numbers is expected in about a year, says Guynup. Until then, scientists estimate there are around 3,000 living in the wild, down from an estimated 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
The big cats used to live in 23 countries but have been reduced to 11. Most recently, they disappeared from the wild in Cambodia and Vietnam in the past few years.
Habitat loss and human hunting of their prey has shrunk the resources available for tigers, and poaching continues to take a toll.
Tiger parts are banned from trade by international agreements but fetch a high price on the black market, thanks to demand created by the practice of traditional Asian medicine (the parts have no real medicinal value, according to Western scientists).
But in the past few years India's government has taken steps to increase enforcement against poachers and to better secure its tiger parks. The precise details of India's apparent success will likely emerge when the government's full report, Status of Tigers in India, 2014, is issued in about a month, but early indications suggest the biggest gains in tigers have been in a few large protected parks, says Guynup.
"The important take-home here is that when tigers are given enough space and they and their prey are protected, they bounce back," says Guynup. (See how activist art sheds light on tiger conservation.)
India has had trouble reporting on its tigers in the past because game managers relied on outdated methods of tracking, such as looking at footprints. But over the past few years, those managers have upgraded to using camera traps to record tigers and to identify them individually based on their unique stripe patterns, which are akin to human fingerprints.
"They are now using proper scientific methods to track their tigers, and these results are absolutely fabulous," says National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, who has photographed tigers in India and elsewhere.
Winter shot the photos for Tigers Forever and a recent National Geographic magazine feature on the big cats. (Learn more about Steve Winter's work on predators.)
Indian officials developed their camera trap program in consultation with conservation biologist Ullas Karanth and the Wildlife Conservation Society, among other leading big cat biologists.
Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist and explorer who leads National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative, says tigers remain in a precarious position in India and beyond. "Let's not jump to celebrate too quickly or begin to relax, because whatever the specific numbers may be tigers worldwide are still likely less than 5 percent of their population numbers of a century ago," he says.
India has more resources than some other countries in the tiger's range and has apparently made progress, says Dollar, but many challenges remain, both in poorer countries and in India, where the situation could deteriorate quickly if game managers reduce their vigilance.
This story was updated at 12 pm on January 22 to clarify the scientists that worked with India on the new tiger methodology, to more completely describe Luke Dollar's title, and to make Dollar's quotes more clear.