What is up (or down) with wild tiger populations?
What is going on with all the tiger news this week? I have seen headlines saying 'For the first time in 100 years, tiger numbers are growing', 'Tigers declared extinct in Cambodia' 'Tiger biologists debunk report on increase in population' What? Why all the conflicting stories? What are the real answers? Let's unravel them and clear it up shall we.
According to a report by WWF and the Global Tiger Forum, wild tiger populations across India, Russia, Nepal and Bhutan have risen, and now globally tiger populations stand at a minimum of 3'890, up from their recorded number of 3'200 in 2010. (These numbers come from data compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the latest national tiger surveys across tiger range states).
The breakdown is this:
India - 2'226 Russia - 433 Indonesia - 371 Malaysia - 250 Nepal - 198 Thailand - 189 Bangladesh - 106 Bhutan - 103 China - < 7 Vietnam - < 5 Lao PDR - < 2 No data available for Myanmar.
Now 'populations' in China, Vietnam and Lao PDR, are so small they cannot really be called populations at all (more just like a few lost souls travelling through the silent forests), the reason is that in order to survive in the wild [maintaining genetic diversity, avoiding inbreeding, and not at risk of extinction from natural disasters and other environmental unpredictabilities] a viable population should not fall under 2'000. If following this rule, technically the populations across Russia and the rest of Southeast Asia - if separated by country - are too considered unsustainable. Of course when grouped together as a total of 3'890 (generously adding Indian tiger numbers too) this is not an issue, but how realistic is it that all these groups meet? Pretty unlikely, and that is where we have the subspecies taxonomic debate. (Right now, we have 6 species all endangered or critically endangered, including 3 that have already gone extinct!) In order to improve protection and possible reintroduction programs, conservationist want to reclassify the species into just two subspecies, one Continental Asian (incorporating Russian big cats) and one Indonesian, island dwelling subspecies.
Unfortunately, despite the report stating that wild tiger numbers are rising (a fact that some NGOs and media alike pounced upon with overwhelming positivity), when considering total numbers across 13 range states this way, it does not look that promising.
Even if the numbers were good, you can't hide dodgy science. The report took another blow when a group of tiger biologists from India, the USA, the UK and Russia all debunked the statistics.
"We do not find this report and its implications scientifically convincing, using flawed survey methodologies can lead to incorrect conclusions and an illusion of success" -Dr K Ullas Karanth from Wildlife Conservation Society India, Dale Miquelle, director of Russia Program of Wildlife Conservation Society, John Goodrich of Panthera US-based Panthera Corporation and Arjun Gopalaswamy from the University of Oxford.
What are the flawed methodologies? Some of the estimates were based on extrapolations from tiger spoor (tracks and scat) surveys only, not useful when calculating specific population numbers. The experts argue that the use of statistical camera trap and DNA analysis is a much more concrete and scientific way to calculate wild cat numbers.
Then why the fabrication?
I can not say for sure, but it is a coincidence that the report was published a day before India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurateed the third Asia Ministerial Conference on tiger conservation (12th - 14th April). Here tiger range states discussed key issues, including anti-poaching strategies, and their progress towards the TX2 goal (doubling wild tiger numbers by 2022).
Did they just want to appear to have handle on the situation?
"Tigers in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Russian Far East are still being targeted for markets in China and for Chinese consumers in Myanmar and Lao PDR. There is also a thriving market in Vietnam and Indonesia." -The Environmental Investigation Agency calls for zero demand.
Now you may have noticed that Cambodia is not mentioned above in the population statistics. That is because there are none. Zero, nada, done! Tigers are now locally extinct in Cambodia, a major loss for the ecosystem.
This is due to intense poaching of tigers and their prey in this region. A National Action Plan is now in discussion to import tigers from other states and introduce them to the 'Mondulkiri Protected Forest' in an last effort to save the iconic species. However, some may argue it is a little to late with poaching statistics too high. What a serious set back to the original TX2 plan.
So we are halfway to the end point and have seen (at best from these fudged results) a 20% increase in wild tiger populations [mostly from India and Russia, who have made commendable efforts in conservation and are leading wild tiger recoveries]. If other range states want to get serious and follow suit they had better come up with some better conservation solutions, working to change behaviour, increase law enforcement efforts and community engagement to save these Asian big cats.