Tiger population is rising and we can double it by 2022, says study

Satellite maps show that there is enough green cover left for the endangered big cat.

Tigers, tigers are not burning bright. From an estimated global population of 100,000 in the wild in the 1900s, they dwindled to less than 3,200 by 2010. Somehow humans managed to wipe out 97% of them in a century. There is hope for them though, including in India.

A paper published in the Science Advances journal this month says that tiger figures are rising again, and they could double to well over 6,000 by 2022.

Titled Tracking Changes and Preventing Loss in Critical Tiger Habitat, the research paper notes that nearly 8%, or almost 79,000 sq km, of forested habitat was lost globally between 2001 and 2014. Nevertheless, there is still enough space in Asia’s forests to accommodate more tigers.

Tiger numbers could grow dramatically if further destruction of habitat is stopped and if tiger corridors are protected. There is also a need to boost resources and protection for the places where tigers can settle in the future once their numbers have increased.

Cumulative forest loss (in square kilometres) in 10 Tx2 Tiger Conservation Landscapes experiencing the highest forest loss between 2001 and 2014.
Cumulative forest loss (in square kilometres) in 10 Tx2 Tiger Conservation Landscapes experiencing the highest forest loss between 2001 and 2014.

The study talks about the concerns in the conservation community in the past decade when tigers were plummeting toward extinction. Following the problematic numbers, a summit was called in Russia where the 13 tiger countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam – agreed on a goal called Tx2 to double the world’s wild tiger population by 2022.

The research features a map which shows the distribution of 76 tiger conservation landscapes. In the map, Tx2 TCLs are landscapes that have the potential to double the wild tiger population by 2022. It is evident that tigers proliferate where prey and sheltered habitat are abundant, as demonstrated by tiger recovery in the Panna National Park, Madhya Pradesh.

The study combined NASA satellite data with Google Earth platform’s processing power to compare thousands of satellite images of tiger habitats from 2001 to 2014. It was conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota, Resolve, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Rainforest Alliance, Stanford University and the World Resources Institute.

Three main reasons stood out for the troubling decline of the big cats: poaching, loss of prey species and habitat loss due to human encroachment. The study also refers to large roads as “mortality magnets for tigers”.

But the satellite images and big data prove that the tigers can potentially recover from the edge of extinction if the authorities made the right forest management choices. All they need is better protection. Tracking their movements and mating habits along with timely action can bring about a 100% increase in the population.

The paper says, “Doubling the tiger population by 2022 requires moving beyond tracking annual changes in habitat. We highlight near-real-time forest monitoring technologies that provide alerts of forest loss at relevant spatial and temporal scales to prevent further erosion.”

A Royal Bengal Tiger in Assam's Kaziranga National Park. Credit: IANS
A Royal Bengal Tiger in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. Credit: IANS

According to the study, India has reported an increase in resident tiger populations by 31% after the Russian convention, while Nepal has reported a rise of 61%. This turnaround is attributed to a network of wildlife corridors known as the Terai Arc Landscape.

India is keen on bettering tiger figures as it hosts the third edition of the Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation from April 12 to April 14. According to the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum, the number of wild tigers has risen globally by 22% to 3,890, from the earlier 2010 estimate of 3,200.

Over the three day conference, tiger countries will report on their progress toward Tx2 and commit to their next steps. Hopefully, this study will provide direction on how the big cats can claw back from the brink of extinction, and not die out completely like in Cambodia.

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