Wild tigers: We love them and don’t want to lose them

Male tiger walks through grasses of Kanha National Park, India

As we near 2022, the world’s attention has never been more focused on tigers. 2022, also known as the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese Lunar calendar, is expected to be a critical juncture on the road ahead for tiger conservation. The last Year of the Tiger, in 2010, brought forth a global commitment to double the world's tigers, known as Tx2, and the world's most ambitious recovery effort ever taken for a single species.

Tiger populations have been declining across Asia for more than 100 years, with extinctions driven by hunting and habitat loss. Securing a future for tigers means more than just saving an iconic species. If tigers are thriving in the wild, it's an indicator that the ecosystems in which they live are thriving too. We have seen great progress among many of the 13 tiger range countries who have committed to take action. Due to political support, funding, collaboration, and innovation, tiger populations are now increasing in countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Russia. However, threats to tigers are ever present. More recently in Southeast Asia, a snaring crisis has been emptying forests of their wildlife, with snares contributing to the extinction of tigers in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Viet Nam. The intersection of wild and human dominated spaces means that human-tiger conflict remains a significant threat to wild tigers. Additionally, the illegal wildlife trade has also fueled the extinction of tigers, exacerbated by the proliferation of tiger farms feeding the trade and stimulating demand with over 8,000 tigers estimated to be in captivity in China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

Where there is hope for tigers

While tigers are in crisis in mainland Southeast Asia (only Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand currently have wild tiger populations), tiger numbers are increasing in areas like Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Russia – countries that have made major progress in their tiger conservation efforts.

India, which is home to over 60% of the world’s tigers, is setting the gold standard for tiger conservation with the announcement that 14 new sites have been approved under the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) (a unified grading system for protected area management based on international best practices for managing target species and places), while all tiger reserves in India are also now CA|TS registered sites. Tiger conservation has also been most successful in countries like Nepal where national tiger committees that are chaired by the head of government have been created to raise the political profile of tigers. Certain areas of Bhutan are now recording first ever sightings of tigers – in the Samtse Forest Division, an adult male tiger sighting was captured on camera traps at a high altitude of 2,775 meters above sea level, which now means that tigers have been recorded in every district in the country. Such high elevation sightings have even been recorded in Nepal. Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia now functions as a wildlife corridor and main route for tigers to find and establish new territories, and the park’s recent surveys have revealed their tiger population has tripled.

There are significant opportunities for tiger recovery in Southeast Asia too. Thailand has the largest contiguous tiger habitat and highest ranger densities in the region. The documented dispersal from Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary into other protected areas in Thailand and across the border into Myanmar is a testament to these resources and strong protected area management in the landscape. And, anti-poaching patrols led by Indigenous community members in Malaysia’s Belum Temengor Forest Complex have seen a 99% reduction in snares over the past few years. 

Opportunities for tiger recovery in Southeast Asia

We know tigers can bounce back in the wild in Southeast Asia. But strong commitments from governments that prioritize the future of tigers are needed. There is an urgent need for leaders to develop and endorse a regional action plan at the 4th Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, projected to be held in the Fall of 2021 in Malaysia.

Governments in Southeast Asia have a chance to reverse declining tiger numbers by endorsing a new Southeast Asia Tiger Recovery Action Plan. This plan must address the need for increased protected area budgets, staffing, and enhanced political attention and oversight of tiger recovery. It will also need to identify sites for rewilding that can support tigers and address the illegal trade of tigers and tiger parts, including from tiger farms. This rare political moment for tigers in the region and the adoption of such a recovery plan would send a signal that the governments of Southeast Asia are intent on addressing the crisis.

Rebuilding wild tiger populations can be done. With the full support of communities, governments, the private sector, and conservation partners, threats against tigers can be eliminated. Otherwise, this iconic big cat will remain under threat well beyond 2022.