July 29, 2021 : Celebrating the 11th Global Tiger Day
Towards Securing Long-Term Future for Wild Tigers of Asia
Written By M. Ashraf
Today is 11th Global Tiger Day (aka International Tiger Day). Global Tiger Day was born in year 2010 when all 13 tiger range nations met in St. Petersburg, Russia where for the first time global leaders came together to help safeguard the future of dwindling population of wild tigers of the world. This was the most ambitious and first international conservation initiative that has ever undertaken to recover globally threatened single species from its extinction crises in the wild. Tigers are the most iconic and charismatic mega fauna that our pale blue planet given rise from its inception roughly 5 billion years ago. The concern for dramatic tiger population decline is not new and four years prior to St. Petersburg Tiger Conference, in year 2006, Tiger Forever Project was born. Led by world’s top wildlife ecologists and carnivore conservationists, Tiger Forever Project is most prestigious and effective single species global conservation recovery program created by Panthera – The Global Wild Cat Conservation Organization called Panthera. Panthera is the only scientific and conservation organization on earth that is dedicated to help safeguard all 40 species of wild cats across the hemisphere. Wild tigers, the critically endangered species that even after fifty years of global conservation efforts and millions of dollars investment, faced with multiple level of threats which led to 95% of its global population decline across its home range in tropical ecosystems in South and South East Asia. Against the backdrop of 11th International Tiger Day, renewing our commitments and dedication through concerted science bound conservation initiatives, education and actions towards protecting this beautiful mega-vertebrate that now inhabits in fragmented, human-dominated agricultural bound pockets of ecologically threatened yet biologically most diverse hotspots in Asia should be at the heart of every concerned tiger conservationists and tiger lovers across the globe.
Tiger Species and Its Population Status
As early as 1900, there were over 100,000 tigers with its 8 putative subspecies roamed across vast wilderness of Asian landscapes ranging from as far west as Turkey and Iran and far east as Japan and North Korea. This mammoth historical population now shrunk to mere 3800 tigers with 97% of its range now either vanished or converted to agricultural pasture to feed burgeoning human population across the globe. Wild tigers now inhabit in less than 3% of its historical range habitats with population size as small as less than 100 and as big as 3000 comprising less than 13 tiger range countries across tropical and subtropical South and South-East Asia. The subspecies of Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica), Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) and Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) are totally extinct over the last 70 years or so. The remaining five subspecies of Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), Indo-Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), South-China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), Siberian Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) and Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) now inhabit handful of tiger range countries where they are facing population decline at dramatic level. The new sub-species based on genetic, behavior and ecological distinction is found in Malaysia and subsequently names as Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) although it was previously clumped into Indo-Chinese subspecies category as taxonomic putative class. Although these remaining six subspecies makes up roughly 3800 tigers that are left and facing extinction crisis, their population size is neither even nor proportionally distributed across tiger range countries. For example, no tigers are detected from South China for over 20 years and it is now classed as Extinct species. Some believe there may be 30 species left in deep forested area of South China although given such small population size, it is evident that its long term survival in the wild is not possible due to various phylogenetic adverse impacts, for example inbreeding depression and so on. Same can be told about small population of Malayan tiger which is inhabiting in dwindling insularized small population in peninsular Malaysia. In contrary, Bengal tiger population makes up roughly 80% of the global tiger population in the wild and it inhabits inhabits only five Indian subcontinent nations of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and eastern part of Myanmar (aka Burma) although no tigers have been detected in eastern Myanmar for decade or so. India comprises more than half of the global tiger population with current population size of more than 2000 and increasing, thanks to dedicated and concerted efforts by small number of Indian and international wildlife biologists tirelessly working to revive tiger numbers from its last stronghold. Since the inception of St. Petersburg tiger initiative also known as St. Petersburg declaration, wold leaders have agreed to double the tiger numbers in their respective nations. This ambitious and most challenging proposal was brought in by three pilers of global tiger conservation movements, notably World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera along with various international conservation NGOs, forums, research organizations and individuals from both tiger and non tiger range countries across the globe. The proposal was agreed and fashionably known as Tx2 (tiger times 2, doubling the tiger numbers) project. Tx2 project’s aim is to double the tiger numbers in all its range nations from year 2010 till year 2022 which coincides with next Year of the Tiger in Chinese culture. Eleven years has gone past since the Tx2 project, significant investments of millions of dollars, expensive conferences across tiger and non tiger nations, and hundreds of research projects and publications have also been made with mixed result in terms of bringing tiger population from its brink of extinction. Within these 11 years right at the moment of 11th Global Tiger Day as the time of writing this article, tigers have vanished from nations like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In spite of these rather bleak and alarming sketch of current demographic and conservation status of tigers, nations like India, Nepal and Bhutan shines where tiger numbers have been increased and doubled to meet the ambitious goals of Tx2 project which ends in year 2022.
Historical & Current Threats to Wild Tigers
Historically tigers were killed for trophy hunting. Originated from British colonial rules in Indian subcontinent back in early early 1900, British aristocrats, civil servants along with their henchmen ruling Indian subcontinent with the aim of resource exploitations, bagged over 90,000 tigers from 1900 right till 1947 when India became Independent nation. From 1947 onwards, when over 85% of the tiger population has already decimated, there were very little for newly independent India to do other than creating protected areas across tiger range states. With increase of human population, coupled with free-market global trade that benefits developed nations and give rights to exploit natural resources in developing nations, cash crop mono culture plantations started to rise in tiger range nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh and so on. Appealed by the global free trade, free market economy which in fact does not benefits these nations in terms of increasing per capital income in the expense of letting transnational corporations to take over their lands, almost all tiger habitats have been exploited and converted to mono culture cash crop plantations of rubber, teak, oil palm, coffee and aquaculture shrimp farms in large swaths of virgin mangrove ecosystems of millions of acres of intact tiger ecosystems across South and South East Asia. These biologically rich ecological hotspots that holds over 30% of the all vertebrate species in the world, now faced with chronic ecological and environmental destruction in the name of global free trade, free market capitalist economy benefiting only handful of developed nations and decimating rest. Wild tigers are guardian of forest and this term has been coincided with ecologically valid keystone umbrella species. Flagship umbrella species, the term that applied to tigers simply translates to the fact that saving tigers not only benefits tiger itself, it greatly increase the ecological and biological diversity of that particular ecosystem along with all other abiotic and climatic features including fresh water supply, rainfall patterns, soil structure, forest shed and density of the canopy layers and so on. All these intensely enable the ecosystem to grow and proliferate which brings healthy forest, healthy atmosphere, fresh and clean potable water reservoirs, fresh water fish, proteins, human livelihood and survivals. Millions of people on developing nations depends on these natural resources for their livelihood and daily survival and without tiger and tiger dominated forests ecosystems human life started to deteriorate and trigger chain of complex social and economic disturbances in an unprecedented manner often known as cascading socio-ecological impacts. Therefore protecting tigers means ultimate human benefits in these nations, the benefits that do not come from global free trade agreement to convert tiger forest to cash crop rubber or oil palm plantations.
“I would stop using the label ‘Project Tiger’ and call it ‘Project Eco-System’. We need to communicate effectively that saving the tiger is not some middle class obsession. It is an ecological imperative — by saving the tiger, you are saving the forests. The tiger is merely the symbol. By saving it, we ensure our water security.”
……… Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of State for Environment and Forests, India
Scientific Study of Tigers
Lack of science bound study of tigers and under implementation of ecological science in national conservation policy framework may one of many reasons, tiger range nations are facing serious challenges to stabilize or increase tiger population size. Despite the fact, doubling the tiger numbers is a collective goal and does not translate to individual national goal, all tiger states have agreed to stabilize and make an endeavor to increase tiger population size via St. Petersburg Declaration. This unfortunately has not been achieved in most of the tiger nations except India and Nepal where dedicated and ecologically valid conservation action plans have been undertaken with marked positive outcome. Even in India, which holds over half of the tiger population and which still has millions of square kilometers of suitable tiger habitats, most of the forest are in fact empty forests. It is therefore not surprising that despite over 1.5 million square kilometers of tiger ecosystems exist in South and South East Asia, over 75% of the tigers are in fact living in less than 5% of the areas and under increasing anthropogenic pressures in the form of habitat fragmentation, agricultural expansion, tigers’ essential prey depletion and human encroachment. Doubling the tiger numbers by year 2022 is surely an ambitious goal but to make this goal a reality, standalone political will or emotional plea to save tigers is not good enough. Identifying key conservation areas within the broad heterogeneous patch mosaics of tiger conservation landscape (also known as TCL) is one of many objectives that require dedicated science bound conservation action plan. Considering to the fact that tigers now live in highly insularized and patchy habitat and facing human induced perturbations of all forms, identifying ecologically suitable habitats for tigers where breeding population size stands better chance for long term survival can help reach the target towards doubling tiger population size. In the contrary, where tiger numbers become too small or breeding females are absent, conservation actions and investment in those habitats may pose little significance to increase population size. Other important focus should be interconnecting those breeding areas with nearby forested ecosystems for young tigers to disperse and populate from its source population. This comes under creating source-sink structure and to manage the isolated and fragmented population size within meta-population form within the broad tiger conservation landscape.
In spite of the fact, scientific study of tigers actually begun in early 1960s by brilliant American wildlife biologist George Schaller and his pioneering work on tigers in Kanha National Park in India was first published in the form of seminal book called ‘The Deer and the Tiger’ in 1967, most of the scientific works on tigers still remain unnoticed by government officials working or in charge of conservation planning and implementation in tiger range nations. Major ecological advances were made by another American carnivore ecologist Melvil Sunquist in the early and mid 70s through radio-telemetry study in Chitwan National Park in Nepal to understand tiger population distribution, its hunting and feeding habit, its reproductive behavior and home range size and other ecological vital information. In the early 90s, Indian wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth and James Nichols (American Wildlife Scientist) pioneered the scientific study of tigers under modern ecological and statistical framework to accurately estimate tiger population size and density by utilizing the power of camera trap capture-recapture modeling method in Southern states of India. Following Karanth’s footsteps wildlife biologists Kae Kawanishi and Monirul Khan reliably estimate the tiger density for the first time in Malaysia and Bangladesh in early this century. We now have wealth of ecologically valid data on tigers: thanks to these pioneering biologists and their associates but ironically it did not help prevent chronic and dramatic decline of tiger numbers across tropical belts. Forty years or more have gone past and tiger conservation certainly entered into the realm of cutting edge statistically valid and ecologically sound modern research framework, yet reaching the target to double the tiger population remain far from reality. Armed with forty-years of scientific study of tigers, modern wildlife biologists and conservation ecologists alike from tiger range and non tiger range countries mainly from North America and Western Europe, are jointly collaborating whenever and wherever the opportunity exist to strengthen and build science based ecological conservation of tigers in Asia. Advancements in India and Nepal over the last forty years to help save tigers enabled surrounding nations like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to embrace scientific study to understand tiger population and ecology . These nations have made attempt to understand tigers’ demographic parameters within ecologically and statistically valid norm for the past ten years or so. For example, for quarter of century or more, Bangladesh conducted ad hoc study to estimate tiger population by using non scientific methods of several kinds. However, this has now all changed and recent studies were all driven by solid science of ecology, statistics and mathematical modeling. Reliable estimation of tigers in Bangladesh now reveals that tiger population size is in fact four times lower than what was estimated through ad hoc studies over many decades.
These latest studies provided us not only with good sets of quality data on demographic parameters and distribution patterns of tiger over spatial and temporal scales covering hundred and thousands of tiger conservation landscape but also revealed great deal of ecological information about tigers that in the past were simply absent. For example, Sunquist and Karanth’s work revealed tigers’ hunting efficiency is by and large 10%. In the surface it may mean little but when put into ecological and conservation perspectives, the percentage can enable wildlife biologists to answer critical ecological questions. Adult individual male tiger require between 2500 kg to 3000 kg of meat per year. Breeding female raising litter of 4-5 cubs needs considerably more meat on the hoof and works out roughly 3500 kg per year. Majority of the tiger habitats are increasingly becoming empty forest where tigers’ prey base remain scarce. On the other hand millions of years of evolution have made tiger as one of the most top-notch landscape species on earth in which it is designed to hunt down large ungulates (hoofed mammals) weigh between 50kg to 1000kg depending on the landscape where these preys and tiger inhabit. To take tigers hunting efficiency into account, if an ecosystem is blessed with 500 healthy deers weighing on average 50kg per individual, an individual adult tiger would then able to hunt down 50 of them per year hence barely meeting the annual energy nutrition budget. Conservation implication of tiger’s hunting efficiency then simply translates to effective management of prey population. In fact, prey population is the critical determinant of long term tiger population viability. Classic landscape predator sitting at the top of the food chain and governing the ecosystem as if prime minister of the nation, cannot be survived, reproduced and repopulated without adequate, regular and healthy supply of nutrients and proteins. Just like lions in Africa cannot live by consuming millions of tons of insects, tigers cannot live by eating smaller prey weighing less than 50 kilograms in tropical Asia. Its all rooted into hunting efficiency and how many prey animals weighing over 50 kg that tiger can kill per year.
In order for GTRP to become a successful longterm tiger ecology and conservation project with functional objective to double the tiger numbers, ecological study of tiger focusing several key sets of elements are at fundamental and paramount importance. Identifying key conservation areas where at least 10 – 25 breeding population size is present, followed by joining these population by creating effective wildlife corridors (aka dispersal corridors) to increase tiger population dispersal and gene flow will help increase reproductivity, survival chance and population status in the long run. Several wild tiger populations pivoted around with breeding tigers are necessary in this remit. Equally, protecting prey population base at level that meets tigers annual nutrition budget is at critical importance. Annual tiger and its prey survey that embrace science would enable tiger ecologists to effectively monitor demographic patterns over spatial and temporal scales : essentially vital to understand whether conservation actions are in fact helping to increase tiger and its prey base or simply not working. Doubling the tiger numbers largely depends on whether a tiger nation has laid out a tiger conservation action program based on solid science of ecology, wildlife biology, statistical modeling and other interdisciplinary subjects in the field survey to data processing and analysis. Results can then be translated in laymen terms to educate policymakers, local conservation leaders, general public and law makers across tiger nations where probability of long term survival for tiger is relatively high. These in turn will help create sufficient political synergy and power to safeguard this awesome and magnificent animal that is now very near to extinction. George Schaller, who pioneered the scientific study of wild tigers over five decades ago in India, warns us that: “Future generations will be truly saddened, if this century has so little wisdom, compassion, such lack of generosity of spirit, that it eliminates one of the most dramatic animals that has ever lived on this planet.”
Future for Tigers
With current rate of extirpation and decimation of wild tigers against the backdrop of incremental globalization in tropical tiger range nations, conversion of forest, tall grasslands, riverine forests, mangroves into agricultural, aquaculture and cash-crop mono culture rubber, teak, oil-palm plantations, poaching of tigers for its body parts, it is hard to predict how long this gentle beautiful creature can withstand anthropogenic human disturbances. Although few nations have done well to increase tiger numbers over the last 10 years, it is unlikely this alone can help save the tiger from its global extinction crisis. Prediction models suggests its population is likely to increase over the next 30 years providing effective, stringent and science bound conservation management plans are on place in cherry-picked tiger conservation habitat across its vast landscape. We can only do best we can do to ensure future of tiger’s survival is not taken away by global free trade economy that decimates and degrade not only biological diversity of wild flora and fauna but cause more damage than improving social and economic status of countries where tigers and other large keystone flagship umbrella species inhabits in globally threatened biological hotspots in tropical belt.
Some Facts in Nutshell
1. Chinese Year of the Tiger in Year 2022
2. St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation at Global Tiger Forum (Tiger Summit) held in Russian Federation in 2010 : Last Chinese Year of the Tiger
3. Doubling the tiger numbers from 3200 to 6400 by year 2022 : the next Chinese Year of the Tiger
4. Global Tiger Day : July 29
5. Global Tiger Recovery Program aka Tx2 to double the Tiger Numbers between 2010-2022
6. Over £330 million dollars were pledged in St. Petersburg Declaration
7. From 100,000 tigers to 3000 in less than a century, total loss of 97% of the population in less than a century
8. Essentially there may be only four subspecies and these are 1. Bengal Tiger, 2.Amur Tiger, 3. Indo Chinese Tiger and 4. Sumatran Tiger
9. Out of 3200 tigers, roughly 1000 are breeding females
10. Out of 100,000 tigers from its historical population size that existed less than 100 years ago, tiger population now roughly 3% of its historical population size.
11. Tiger population now lives in roughly 7% of their historical range which encompassed entire South and South East Asia, Far East including Korea, Central and South Western part of Asia and Russian Federation.
12. Out of 3200 tigers, India has the largest population size with roughly 1200 tigers with possibly more breeding females than any other tiger range states (TRS).
13. Out of 3200 tigers, roughly 1000 tigers are breeding females
14. Identification of Source Sites is critical, source sites are defined as tiger conservation sites that have the potential to maintain greater than 25 breeding females ( >25). Source sites that are integrated/embedded in larger landscape have further potential to hold greater than 50 breeding females (>50).
15. There are still 1.5 million sq km of potential tiger habitats exists in South and South East Asia and most of these habitats are heterogeneous and tigers are mainly confined to protected areas now.
16. There are 42 source sites identified and these sites comprise roughly 70% of the total tiger population. These source sites comprised roughly < 100,000 sq km which is less than 0.5% of their historical range and approximately 6% of their current distribution range. In a nut shell, 70% of the current tiger population is tied up into 6% of their distribution range across all the tiger range states including Russia. This 6% is the most important tiger conservation priority sites.
17. If Russia is excluded, we can safely say, 74% or 2368 tigers of the worlds wild tigers are now confined to less than 4.5% of the current tiger ranges across all the tiger range states in South and South East Asia.
18. We do know there are roughly 1000 breeding females and again if you knock off the size of the breeding population from Russia, it is approximately 900 breeding females or roughly 38% of the total tigers of Asia that now lives in less than 4.5% of the potential source sites in these countries: 1. India 2. Bangladesh 3. Nepal 4. Thailand 5. Malaysia 6. Indonesia and 7. Lao PDR (need to check up on that).
19. Source sites are so important for tiger conservation that recovering tiger population from source file through ecology bound conservation management plan for tigers alone can dramatically increase tiger population 70% from its current world population.
20. Nine subspecies in which four sub species are extinct that include South China Tiger
In this essay, I attempted to deduce latest demographic and conservation status of wild tigers in the face of anthropogenic disturbances across tiger range nations in South and South East Asia. The essay is written with an aim to promote tiger ecology and conservation education and to celebrate the 11th Global Tiger Day on July 29, 2021. To further enhance the content of this essay and as supplement, I have also added my video lecture in you tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh5ehqK1nJY with an aim to teach GIS based ecological and conservation approach to help safeguard wild tiger habitats and to share my knowledge with young tiger conservationists in tiger nations – all as part of celebrating 11th Global Tiger Day.
Happy Tiger Day