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Three Thousand Wild Tigers

Talking Tigers: Part 1 of a 12-part series 

When I began intensive tiger research for our Tigers Forever book project two years back, I was shocked to learn, through a series of casual conversations, that almost no one is aware of the cat’s precarious state. When I tell people that just 3,200 tigers are left in the wild, their mouths drop. And that was last year: In discussions with some of the world’s top tiger experts over the last month, I’ve learned that the current number now may hover closer to 3,000. There are about that many captive tigers in Texas. Most of those are privately owned.

Tigers, the largest of the world’s cats, are the heart and soul of Asia’s jungles, grasslands, and deserts. They’re so adaptable that they even thrive in the frigid Himalayan foothills and the mangrove water-world of the Indian/Bangladeshi Sunderbans—and they are the dominant predator, literally the kings and queens, of every ecosystem they inhabit. But Asia’s exploding human population is eating away their forest home, and both tigers and their prey have been caught in the crosshairs, killed in vast numbers by trophy hunters and more recently, by poachers.

Map of historic and current tiger habitat
Most wild tigers now survive only in protected areas. The current challenge is how big cats and humans can share the landscape in ways that allow tigers safe passage between reserves to hunt and breed, while preventing deadly contact with people. (Map courtesy of Panthera)

In just 100 years’ time, we humans have engineered their grand-scale demise.  A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed across 30 nations, from Turkey eastward to Siberia, throughout Southeast Asia down to the tip of Indonesia. Today, they hang on in just 13 countries; though they’re the national animal of six nations, they’ve vanished from two of them, North and South Korea. They’ve disappeared from 93 percent of their former range; just 42  “source sites” are known, areas that conservationists say have the potential to seed tiger recovery.These sites are scattered across the continent. Half of all our wild tigers live in India.

Recently, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute analyzed the genetic vigor of tigers in a string of reserves across central India, where I just spent three weeks. One of them, Pench Tiger Reserve, is a 100-square-mile (257-square-kilometer) patch that looks like an illustration from The Jungle Book: groves of towering bamboo, big-leafed teak trees and “strangler fig” banyans filled with acrobatic langur monkeys. But Pench is essentially a leafy island. It’s hard to believe that a century ago, this was mostly unbroken forest. Today it, (like many parks, especially in India) is being squeezed by  an encroaching, teeming sea of humanity. These parks are bordered by a patchwork of rice paddies, crop fields, hemmed in by villages, cities, and all sorts of development. The surrounding land is segmented by roads, railways, scarred by massive mines and other barriers that render it dangerous and virtually impassable for these wide-ranging predators.

Researchers found that in Pench and other reserves that lacked corridors connecting them to other forests, tigers were far more inbred. Those cats had 47 to 70 percent less gene flow, and as we know from the medical history of European royalty, inbreeding does not create the healthiest bloodlines.

Tigers have lived in these lands for millennia; like all modern cats, they originated in Southeast Asia. The great roaring cats, Panthera were the first to branch off the cat family tree 10.8 million years ago. It’s a group that includes tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards.

The earliest tiger fossils are two million years old. That ancient ancestor eventually evolved into nine subspecies as they slowly adapted to Asia’s various landscapes, prey, and climate. Three of the nine blinked into extinction over the last 80 years. The last known Bali tiger died out during the 1930s; the Javan and Caspian tiger both disappeared in the 1970s. Six subspecies remain: the Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, Sumatran, Amur (Siberian)—and the South-China, which is gone from the wild, existing only in captivity. All are endangered. In 1996, the Sumatran tiger was reclassified as critically endangered, one step from oblivion.

The critically endangered Sumatran tigers are the smallest subspecies of tiger.
A Sumatran tiger peers at a camera trap it triggered while hunting in the early morning in the forests of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photograph by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Okay, so why don’t we all know that tigers are slipping towards the edge? Part of the reason might be because we see them all the time in zoos and at the circus. But captive tigers don’t count: they’re gone from the wild gene pool and even if they could be released, they wouldn’t know how to hunt or survive outside of an enclosure and their familiarity with people would make them dangerous. And it’s nearly impossible to move a new individual into a place where tigers live. These cats are incredibly territorial and will fight to the death over their carefully delineated home territory.

Another big reason that many of us don’t realize there are so few tigers is that for the last 40 years or so, conservation organizations have loudly claimed that they’re saving them. It’s a way to keep donations rolling in. But the fact is, only a few of them are making headway in a few locations. Billions of dollars have been fundraised and spent, yet tiger numbers continue to plummet.

To save the tiger, protecting those 42 precious source sites is critical. In 2010, fully protecting those sites was estimated at a cost of $82 million a year.

Though tigers are in the emergency room, they’re a resilient species. They were nearly annihilated 73,000 years ago when a massive volcanic eruption at Sumatra’s Lake Toba plunged the planet into volcanic winter, wiping out scores of Asian mammals. The species rebounded from just a few individuals to repopulate Asia.

The good news: A female can birth 15 cubs in her lifetime, and there’s still enough habitat to support healthy populations.  If both the cats and their prey are given boots-on-the-ground protection, there’s hope, they’ll bounce back. But it will take committed, targeted action and creative strategies.

Kaziranga National Park's 450 guards frequently end up in shootouts with heavily-armed poachers
Here, guards in India’s Kaziranga National Park patrol for poachers. It’s the only reserve in India where guards are allowed to carry guns. (Photograph by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

In the words of renowned field biologist George Schaller, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories. It’s a never-ending process that each of us must take part in.”

~~~~~

Over the next weeks, I’ll dig into the rich cultural history surrounding this majestic cat—why they’ve been both feared and revered throughout human history—and will explore both the threats that face them and the extraordinary efforts to save them.

Comments

  1. Abby butler
    Austin Arkansas
    August 1, 2:47 am

    For they who kill tigers shall get executed because the are taking a life from a living breathing animal that is going extinct

  2. Abby butler
    Austin Arkansas
    August 1, 2:42 am

    the human race only cares about is making car,electronics,and taking over land to make more buildings,and polluting the air.They don’t think about the wild animals and their habitats

  3. travass
    June 25, 11:11 pm

    come on people 3200 tigers left start executing tiger poachers that are caught red handed and see how many sick so called hunters tuck tail and run theyre not hunters they are heartless greedy people with no honor see how they like being hunted extinction

  4. travass
    spokane wa
    June 25, 11:05 pm

    any one sick enough to hunt a species to extinction should face death for theyre crimes i believe anyone that would continue to poach an animal thats on the extinction list should face a death penalty

  5. Dorothy Walsh
    MI
    June 18, 3:21 pm

    We (the human race) are not taking very good care of this world and the amazing array of species and lands on it, are we?

  6. Paige
    April 9, 1:03 am

    I WOUNDER IF THEY WOOD SAVE THE TIGER

  7. ian
    February 13, 6:00 am

    Tigers actually originated from China or East Asia, not Southeast Asia, where ‘all’ cats came from.

  8. Sudheer Kurup
    Trivandrum, Kerala, India
    January 22, 8:33 am

    Its not just the responsibility of some people in the society to protect the wildlife and the nature, its the responsibility of every human being. However this education and awareness needs to come right from school and home.
    I have been recently to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India but apparently what I heard from the local guide who took us through these forest, they rarely see any tigers, though these animals still exists.
    I have been fortunate enough to see the glimpse of a baby wild Elephant and her mother (i think) through my camera lens from far away in the forest as well as some lion-tailed_macaque, male deer / Sambar (Stag), Bison and wild boar. The whole concept is not to disturb their environment as well as them…as we saw that these animals run away when they see humans or other disturbances created by us humans such as vehicles etc…
    As a photography and wildlife enthusiast and supporter, I wish I could really do something to help save the wildlife and the nature.

  9. Andie Carey
    Runcorn Cheshire England
    January 20, 4:08 pm

    Every tiger is so precous we need zero tolerance on poaching & more done to educate people in these areas on the importance of tigers & the whole eco system !!!

  10. Nelly Tolbert
    January 16, 1:13 pm

    We humans need to stop destroying things! It’s horrible.

  11. HisStar
    January 16, 1:12 pm

    I agree… I’m a cat lover for both Domestic and Wild… our Kitties Need Help!!

  12. Sharon Guynup
    USA
    January 15, 11:37 pm

    One organization that’s doing good conservation work is Panthera; another organization, the Environmental Investigation Agency does global investigative work into poaching, and the Wildlife Protections Society of India does amazing work investigating and fighting poaching in India.

  13. Tintu Shaj
    kerala
    January 15, 10:52 pm

    we can do the every small thing to save the big cat. let the coming generations too enjoy the GRRRRRRRR. .

  14. Risa
    TW
    January 15, 8:32 pm

    POOR tiger,we should be nice to all wild animals.

  15. Nagesh Mula
    USA
    January 15, 7:36 pm

    First of all, I would like to appreciate you for taking this project of educating us all about the Tigers.

    I would also recommend that It would be great if we could have the list of the Organizations who are really working towards saving these Tigers. In this way, we all would know whom to support with out hard earned money.

    Thanks

  16. Bee Girl
    January 15, 3:54 pm

    I don’t believe there are even that many tigers left.

  17. Isaac T.
    texas, usa
    January 15, 2:11 pm

    I really feel bad about it all, i mean, what did they ever do to our human race to make us almost destroy theirs??!! and i agree with you @ Alexie…we need to act fast!

  18. tj
    Grand Forks
    January 15, 1:22 pm

    Poor tigers they are amazing

  19. rocky chaudhry
    usa
    January 15, 8:21 am

    save all wild animals

  20. Alexie
    gt yarmouth
    January 15, 8:08 am

    This is really bad if we dont act fast about this i don’t know what to say then.

    ACT FAST