Global Tiger Day : July 29, 2019 : Hope and Inspiration to Bring Back Tigers from Extinction Crisis!
29th of July is Global Tiger Day also known as International Tiger Day. We see tigers in various commercial and business facets, from fashion motif to our cereal box. I even remember, Exxon the multinational oil giant once televised ad with a slogan ‘Tiger on your tank”! The sheer power and magnificence of tigers captured corporate attention for decades if not century and tiger symbols or brands got embedded into our modern social and cultural fabric.
Despite so much admiration and affection, tigers in the wild are facing global extinction crisis in sheer magnitude. To put this into perspective, as early as 1900, there were over 100,000 tigers used to roam all over Asia, by the turn of century, 95% of the tiger population has disappeared from the wild. Three sub species of tigers (Caspian tiger, Bali tiger, and Javan tiger) have completely gone extinct : Thanks to human persecution across tiger range countries. Shockingly there are only 3900 tigers left in the wild with disproportionate population size across 13 tiger range countries. Among 13 countries, few of the nations like Cambodia, Vietnam and China has population size small enough to class as almost extinct. This is because, once the population size become too small then genetically it is not possible to reverse the declining trend to bring back the species from extinction crisis. This small population size is often known as effective population size which is always smaller than real population size. In other words effective population size means genetically, species are not viable to interbreed hence extinct in the wild.
At the moment, India has the largest tiger population over 2000 tigers in the wild, but that is not surprising because India is the largest landmass among all tiger range countries. Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan has small population but governments of these nations are trying to stabilize if not increase the tiger numbers. Russian far east, in an area near Amur river, has roughly 400 tigers. There are tigers in Sumatra and population is declining as we speak.
Hence, the situation for tiger is bleak and saddening. The way, tiger numbers are declining, the species may not survive in the wild next century. I do not like to see that happens and I am sure many of us who grew up with sheer respect and admiration for wild cats, would feel the same. Global tiger day provide us an opportunity to revitalize our spirit to do something, anything to help save tigers in the wild. Individually, we may not have much power, but collectively and globally, we have the power to help conserve tigers in the wild, to restore their forest ecosystem, through education outreach, cultural and social festivals, posters and banners, web pages and blogs and many other ways. To mark the 9th Global Tiger Day, Species Ecology will make an endeavor to do what it can do to help raise awareness and public outreach and conservation education surrounding tigers. I personally plan on writing up essays focusing general information about tigers to scientific studies that have been conducted to help protect this charismatic mega vertebrate that evoke so much of excitement and enlightenment among us. In spite of the fact, tigers are essentially Asian species, I personally feel it is a species we can class it as Global Mega Fauna due to its popularity that does not limit any geo-political boundary. For example, Yosemite National Park in California (first national park in the world), Amazon basin in Brazil, Himalaya and its surrounding tiger habitats in Nepal, Tazmahal in India and Sundarbans mangrove ecosystem (the largest contiguous single tract mangrove forest that harbor wild Bengal tigers in the world) in Bangladesh pose no social and or geo political boundaries. These are global ecological assets just like tigers, mountain lion, jaguars and snow leopard as an example. To conclude, I am going to provide you with few basic statistics on how helping to save tigers benefits humans across the globe. This statistics equally apply to any other keystone umbrella species as indicated above.
Tiger landscapes encompass 9 major water sheds in Asia that provide fresh water supply and potable clean drinking water for over 8 million people in Asia.
103 million dollars a year directly generated from tiger tourism in one national park in India. Makes you wonder why live tigers are valuable to society and economy than dead one.
Large tract of forest protected for tigers host immense biodiversity, birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, mollusks, invertebrates and trees. Tigers are apex carnivore that sit at the top of the food chain in forest ecosystem. It is a keystone umbrella species meaning helping to conserve tigers not only help tigers and humans but also safeguard suits of biological and ecological diversity that depends on tigers survival. You save tigers, you saving the forest ecosystem in which we humans are intricately related for our own survival.
Finally, forest protected for tigers in Amur region in Russian Far East, can absorb 130,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It works out carbon emission from 25,0000 cars a year. Helping to save tigers and its ecosystems will significantly help curb human induced carbon emission : the main culprit for global warming hence climate change.
Saving tigers, you get more for your health, livelihood and money!
Wild tigers (Panthera tigris) are breathtaking, charismatic and elusive mega vertebrate that now facing anthropogenic assaults across South and South East Asia. This secretive and graceful species once roam all over Asia from Mediterranean ecosystem by the Caspian sea in the west to relatively high latitude far east nations like Korea and Japan. Sadly, three subspecies have gone extinct from the wild over the past hundred years and current extant subspecies number is rounded to five. More so, there were over hundred thousands tiger freely roamed across this vast Asian ecological landscape as early as 1900, but sadly 95% of the tiger habitats is disappeared by the turn of the 20th century. The remaining five subspecies of tigers now live in a complex human induced fragmented ecosystems across South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. Tigers are in grave threat and in serous trouble. There are less than 4000 tigers left in the wild and their numbers are declining astronomically purely due to human persecution in various forms for example, habitat encroachment, prey depletion and hunting, agricultural expansion to name few. In spite of the fact tigers provoke sense of pure awe and excitement for millions of people across the world, it is ironic that their population size is pushed to near extinction by humans. The importance of preserving tigers in the wild not just for the sake of doubling tiger population size but more importantly how conserving tiger habitats across tiger range nations can significantly benefits humans and nations’ economy are at the heart of devising in-situ conservation initiatives and public outreach campaign across the hemisphere.
96% of the tiger population has gone extinct from the wild over the last century and current estimates indicate there are 3900 wild tigers left across 13 tiger range nations. Recognizing the fact that tigers are in deep trouble and about to go extinct, if concerted efforts to reverse the trend of population decline were not in force, governments of 13 tiger states gathered in St. Petersburg in Russia in year 2010. The most ambitious and challenging project called Tx2 which simply refers to doubling the tiger population size (Tiger times 2 or Tx2) by year 2022 coinciding with the next Chinese year of the tiger, were launched via St. Petersburg declaration. Governments of these 13 states agreed to the declaration and made commitments to increase tiger population in their respective nations. Nine years have gone past since Tx2 was initiated and the current status and demographic vital signs of tigers across tiger range countries are still long way from secured footing. The negative trend of population decline continues and local population is either gone extinct or become too small to maintain demographically viable breeding population. Habitat destruction coupled with rampant poaching for tiger body parts and skin continue unchecked despite endangered species act and international ban on trade for endangered species under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The goal to achieve Tx2 hence doubling the tiger numbers from 3900 to 7800 by year 2022 is still not out of our hand but time is ticking. Doubling the tiger number is a collective goal and not directly translates to doubling the tiger number for each individual state . For example, countries like Nepal and Bhutan where Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) subspecies roam, concerted and dedicated efforts since St. Petersburg declaration in 2010 have been made and tiger population has in fact increased in these nations. India for example harbors over half of the tiger population (over 2000 tigers in India) and Indian government and dedicated wildlife scientists are working hard to stabilize tiger population and restore degraded tiger habitats. Therefore, progress has been made but not all up to the speed and expectation. Countries like Malaysia where subspecies Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) roam, are in grave threat due to large scale agricultural and industrial expansion to boost short term economic benefits. Same applies to Thailand where Indo-Chinese subspecies (Panthera tigris corbetti) are in great danger. Situation on tiger population status is more severe and dire in countries like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar (formerly Burma) where population size of tigers is so low that it is functionally extinct. Indonesian islands of Bali and Java already lost tiger subspecies over the last 50 years or so and only subspecies that is Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) now roams in the tropical forest ecosystem of Indonesian island called Sumatra. Their numbers are also declining fast due to habitat transformation for mono cultural cash crop notably oil palm, teak, rubber and coffee plantations. Bangladesh boasts the largest mangrove ecosystem called Sundarbans in the world. It is also the only mangrove wetland that harbors tiger population. Despite the vast size of mangrove delta and potentially the largest single-tract contiguous tiger ecosystem in South Asia, it is a paradox that there are less than 200 tigers left in the Bangladesh part of the Sundarbans. Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) population in Russian far east are facing similar anthropogenic disturbances but population seem to be stabilize : thanks to dedicated conservation initiatives and actions that are on place.
Tigers are an umbrella species meaning saving tigers benefits suits of heterogeneous ecosystems that host exceptionally high biodiversity. Biological diversity aka biodiversity comprises genes, species, population, community, ecosystem, landscape and biosphere which in fact is our planet. Each of this element of biodiversity poses significant benefits to humans. Everything as a human we require comes from ecosystems be it fresh air, clean water, nutrients, medicine to name few. Ecosystem is made up of plants and animals comprising genes, species, population and community. Large landscape hosts several ecosystems and hosts multitude ecological and biological diversity across the tiger landscape. These ecosystems are the heartbeat of human survival. Tigers in South and South East Asia live in these large ecological landscapes comprising tropical and semi tropical forests and tall grasslands, rainforests and mangrove swamps. These are exceptionally rich landscapes due to high diversity of flora (plants) and fauna (animals). The earth’s most richest places in terms of animals and plants are in fact fall into tiger landscapes and these are ecologically termed as Biodiversity Hotspot. Out of 13 tiger range countries, 12 of these nations harbor four biodiversity hotspots where tigers roam. There are 332 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) that were identified within tiger landscapes. KBAs are ecosystems with high floral, faunal and ecological diversity and significantly contribute towards global biodiversity persistence in tropical belt. 30% of the tiger landscapes also fall under UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization) declared World Heritage Site. These are exceptionally outstanding ecosystem but these ecosystems are unique both in terms of their biodiversity and socio-cultural potential incorporating indigenous community and their ecological wisdom. Preserving tigers that lives in large tiger landscapes in South and South East Asia encompassing Biodiversity Hotspot, KBAs and World Heritage Site not only benefits tigers, but it significantly benefits humans that are intricately connected and depends on these ecosystems for livelihood and survival. For example nine globally important watersheds fall under tiger landscapes in South Asia. These watershed provide clean water to as many as 830 million people. Forests where tiger lives store more carbons than any other forests in Asia hence contributing to mitigate global climate change. 100% of the Orangutan’s and Rhino’s habitats overlaps with tiger landscape in Sumatra therefore preserving tigers simply bring benefits and protection for these endangered vertebrates. Tigers are truly a landscape species and keystone mega vertebrate that brings enormous benefits and opportunity for humans and large number of other species.
Conserving tigers that are now living in dwindling population in large fragmented heterogeneous biodiversity hotspots in Indo Malayan ecoregion translates to astronomical benefits to large suits of biologically diverse species, humans and economy. Between 1997 – 2011 ecosystem loss counted to $20.2 trillion dollars. Investing in tiger conservation in tiger landscapes prevent ecosystem loss because when you conserve tigers, you not only saving tiger as single species, you are in fact preserving part of earth that poses remarkably high biodiversity and ecosystems that people need for their survival in the long run.
“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
Connecting Ecological Corridors to Conserve Outstanding Biological Diversity in Indo Malayan Ecoregion : Tiger as Touchstone Umbrella Species!
In spite of the large scale investment on tiger conservation over the last quarter of a century, tiger numbers continue to decline at dramatic rate. Considerable conservation efforts, initiatives and campaigns both nationally and internationally have been spearheaded with mixed results. In some nations, tiger numbers dropped to near zero with little or no hope for long term survival in the wild. In other nations, population seem to be stabilized and only few nations managed to increase tiger numbers so far. India and Nepal have made good advancement to increase tiger numbers over the last decade or so and governments, civil societies and NGOs of these nations alongside international donor organizations are collaborating to help secure tiger population and its habitats for long term persistence of wild tigers. Since the 2010 Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in Russia, the first most high-level government meeting for conserving single species in Asia, states of all thirteen nations where tiger population is arguably present, made commitment to help protect tigers in their respective nations through ambitious project called Tx2 which aim to double the tiger numbers from current population of 3900 to 7800 by year 2022 – coinciding with next Chinese Year of the Tiger. It certainly is an ambitious project that came under St. Petersburg Declaration agreed by all the thirteen tiger range states. Three quarter of the time has elapsed since St. Petersburg Declaration with only three years left to double the global wild tiger population, countries have lost tigers, large numbers of tiger habitats across Asia has been converted to mono culture cash crop cultivation, tigers essential prey population has been decimated, forests and grasslands are encroaches and decimated and direct killing of tigers for its body parts, retaliation continued unchecked and unabated. The future of tigers’ survival in the wild looks bleak and pessimistic. In the face of current population status of tigers and considering to the fact that time is ticking to meet St. Petersburg Declaration for Tx2 deadline by year 2022, it is critically important to revitalize our tiger projects that can reflect more holistic approach of tiger conservation where significant potential to approach tiger conservation as key proponent of overall biodiversity conservation should sits right at the heart of all tiger ecology and conservation action plans across Indo-Malayan tiger landscape.
Tigers are truly a high profile landscape predator which require relatively large landscape for hunting, breeding, foraging and for home range establishment. It is a flagship carnivore that has catalyzed significant social and political momentum in the past and often served to raise ecological and conservation education across the hemispheres. Since, its ecological and behavioral attributes are deeply rooted into harnessing the opportunities of large landscape, it is critically important that tiger conservation initiatives focus on safeguarding landscapes that are beyond protected areas where majority of the tigers now inhabit. In spit of the fact that there are still seventy million hectares of landscape available for tigers across Indo-Malayan biographic ecoregion, over eighty percent of the current tiger population is restricted within protected areas of various sizes. Protected areas lone cannot help secure long term survival of breeding tiger population. For tigers to live this century and beyond, it is essential that landscape corridors that link source population currently residing in protected areas are created and maintained for healthy breeding tigers to disperse and establish their own home range. Sadly, it is often outside of the protected areas where land degradation, agricultural expansion, mining, energy and other anthropogenic disturbances that take place. Creating ecological corridors to connect protected areas will ensure that the entire tiger landscape has been protected. It will significantly enhance ecological diversity and gene flow not only for tigers but also for large suits of species of flora and fauna that share lands with tiger.
Tigers are classic keystone umbrella species that help protect multitude of endangered mega fauna including Orangutan and Rhinoceros in tropical and semi tropical ecosystems across South and South East Asia. For example, where critically endangered primate Orangutan (Pongo abelii) and Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) live, hundred percent of their land overlap with tiger habitats. Over thirty percent of endangered Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) population falls under tiger landscapes in countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Since these species are also endangered and often served as flagship species, conserving tigers simply means, these species receive automatic protection. Hence the word ‘umbrella species’ for tiger conservation has special meaning in terms of bringing about high profile vertebrate conservation management and education across Indo Malayan landscape. Some of the most outstanding and most richest biological assemblages are found in tiger landscapes in Asia. Four Biodiversity Hotspots – the worlds most richest part in terms of biodiversity – lie in Indo Malayan ecoregions and three of these Biodiversity Hotspots are in India and Nepal alone. They cover majority of the tiger landscapes hence conserving tigers not only help protect these critically important global biodiversity hotspots but also help safeguarding astonishingly high numbers of species from all taxa notably mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fishes – the essential components of tropical diversity. The diversity of ecosystems from tall grasslands in Eastern India to Himalayan foothills, the temperate high altitude forests where critically endangered Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) roams in Nepal to the largest mangrove swamp of Bangladesh where only remaining Bengal tigers live, conserving tiger habitats beyond protected areas through creation, restoration and maintenance of wildlife and ecological corridors for dispersal, gene flow, ecosystem functions is not just for tigers itself but more importantly for multitude of charismatic and enigmatic species that are facing global extinction assaults stemming from human induced disturbances across tropical and semi tropical Asia.
Landscape based tiger ecology and conservation management has been well integrated in many parts of South Asia and its effectiveness to improve tiger population size is well documented in Nepal, Bhutan and India. Fragmented tiger ecosystems in the form of protected areas in India for example simply are not enough, if tigers to survive well beyond this century. Considering to the fact, over 70 million hectares of forests are still available for tigers to disperse through establishment of ecological dispersal corridors, restoration and establishment of landscape corridors will not only help benefits to increase tiger numbers, given adequate protection of course, but will immensely benefits large suits of biologically diverse flora and fauna along with multiple numbers of critically endangered flagship vertebrates like Snow Leopards, Great Indian Hornbills, Indian Rhinoceroses, Asian Elephants, Burmese Pythons, Orangutans, and Sumatran Rhinos to name few. Long term survival of these species in the wild depends on securing long term future for tigers in Asia.
Doubling the Tiger Numbers to Meet Tx2 Goal by Year 2022 : GIS Based Delineation to Explore the Fundamental Fallacies
Wild tigers (Panthera tigris) are charismatic mega-carnivore in felid guild that serve as flagship keystone species in tropical and semi tropical ecosystems across South and South East Asia. Historically tiger populations range many countries covering as far as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Iran in western Asia to Singapore, Korea, Philippines and most of Southern China in East Asia (see figure 1). Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest there were over hundred thousands tigers that roam free across broad geographic landscape in the Palearctic and Indo Malaya biogeographic realms over the past hundred years. Sadly, tiger numbers shrank dramatically and 96% of the tigers disappear due to various anthropogenic negative impacts across their once contiguous and broad ecological landscape of Asia. There are probably less than 3800 tigers left in the wild and recent estimate suggests that approximately hundred tigers get killed by poachers every year. Tigers now live in an increasingly human- dominated insularized and fragmented landscape in handful of nations in South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. Habitat encroachment by humans, habitat degradation or agricultural conversion/expansion and habitat fragmentation are some of the leading drivers that pushed tigers into brink of extinction. To reverse these negative trends and to halt tiger population decline, ecoregional based preservation, restoration and habitat connectivity in conjunction with identifying key conservation areas where breeding tiger populations pose high probability of long term survival in heavily fragmented Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCL) across Indo Malayan ecoregion should be placed at top conservation priority for tiger range nations across tropical and semi tropical belt.
Keystone mega vertebrates for example Mountain Lion (Puma concolor) in North America, Jaguar (Panthera onca) in South America, Lion (Panthera leo) in Africa and Tiger (Panthera tigris) in subcontinent Asia and Russian Far East are classic landscape predator which helps maintaining the overall biodiversity and ecological structure, composition and functions of the ecosystems and biomes in which they inhabit. Recent study on Mountain Lion (aka Cougar, Puma ) population by Mark Elbroch in Greater Yellowstone National Park in United States revealed astonishingly high species diversity in entolomogical, ornithological and mammalogical fronts. Elbroch’s study points out where keystone apex carnivore lives and hunt, their kills alone attract large numbers and high diversity of invertebrates and other vertebrates including birds and mammals in kill sites. Large carnivores often hunt large herbivores often weigh ten time more than their own body weight. Elbroch and his research team found out that Mountain Lion that kills 700 pounds Elk (aka Wapiti) leaves large proportion of the carrion (dead meat) which then become home to significantly high diversity of invertebrates notably beetles, slugs, insects and other entomologically important species. Rotting carcasses attract other carnivores including bears, foxes and wolves at the kill sites. The way Mountain Lion shapes up the ecosystem in North America, it is by some carnivore ecologists, refer to as true ecosystem engineer that help promotes high diversity of species thereby contributing to maintenance and sustainability of the ecological services, functions and significant diversity. Elbroch’s finding is valid for other obligate carnivores in Felid guild for example Jaguars and Tigers. Tigers in tropical and semi tropical Asia often hunts large ungulate (hoofed mammal). For example, in India, tiger prefers to hunt down the largest bovine : The wild Gaur (Bos gaurus). Weigh over 1000 kg, more than three times the weight of Bengal tiger, it is the largest extant (not extinct yet) ungulate in Indo Malayan ecosystems. Although, data on tiger kills focusing large to medium sized ungulates are sporadic and often scarce, it is nonetheless inferred that large kills like Gaur will attracts significantly higher number of other subordinate carnivores, other mammals and birds at the tiger’s kill sites. Therefore, healthy tiger population actively hunting down large ungulates in tropical ecosystems in Asia is true indication of the healthy ecosystems as they shape up the overall structure, diversity, compositions and functions of the ecosystems. It is not surprising that tiger serves as flagship umbrella species in India and other South Asian nations to bring about overall biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, declining population of tigers and the sorry-state-of-this-affairs apparent in tiger range nations are true indication of incremental damage and loss of intact and pristine ecosystems. Elbroch’s study on Mountain Lion kills is by no means limit only to Cougar, in fact this landmark study and its findings now enable us to give a true name to apex carnivores like Puma and Tigers as classic landscape ecosystem engineer.
In spite of significant ecological (and economic and societal) contributions by tigers, tiger numbers are declining exponentially with severe consequences leading to ecosystem malfunctioning and total breakdown of food-chain where tigers act as top predator. Recognizing the steep and dramatic decline of tiger population across Indo Malayan ecoregion, Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) – the most ambitious and high-level international conservation initiative ever undertaken for single-species recovery in Asia – was launched in year 2010. GTRP was strongly supported and multilaterally embraced by some of the most prestigious international conservation organizations for example IUCN, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Smithsonian Institution. The fundamental goal of the GTRP is rooted into doubling the tiger numbers for the next 12 years from year 2010 right till year 2022 by coinciding with the Chinese New Year of the Tiger. The project was fashionably named as Tx2 or TX2 which arithmetically translates to Tiger times 2 hence doubling the tiger population size. In year 2010 when GTRP was launched in the form of St. Petersburg Declaration which then agreed by all 13 tiger range nations along with international conservation groups, tiger numbers were estimated to 3200 across Indo Malayan and Russian Far East ecoregions. Six years later in year 2016, tiger numbers were estimated to 3890 – a 21% increase since GTRP was launched. Doubling the tiger numbers from 3200 to 6400 by year 2022 is surely challenging and ambitious goal considering to the fact that nine years have gone past since the St. Petersburg Declaration and current estimation of tiger population across its range nations is far from reaching Tx2 target. The grim reality is tiger numbers are face with serious anthropogenic threats of various fronts and majority of the tiger nations are in fact loosing their tigers. For example Myanmar (former Burma), Cambodia and Vietnam have not witnessed any breeding population size since 2008. Hence, it can be inferred that these nations have already lost the species or tigers are simply functionally extinct due to the fact that no breeding tigers have been detected for the past 11 years. Countries like China, Thailand, Laos and part of India are facing similar problem where either breeding population has not been detected or population size become too insularized and small that tigers’ chances for long term survival in that particular ecosystem is none therefore the species may be functionally extinct.
Politically motivated high level inter-ministerial gathering to help rescue dwindling wild tigers of Asia certainly captured large scale international media coverage focusing GTRP in St. Petersburg in 2010. Tx2 was launched to double the tiger numbers by year 2022, millions of dollars were committed by international conservation groups and donor organizations from across the hemisphere and significantly remarkable numbers of groundbreaking ecological studies have been carried out to understand the demographic parameters and distribution patterns of tigers. Wild tigers entered into the realm of glossy publications and became ‘Paper Tiger’ whilst ‘Wild Tigers’ continue to disappear with a rate of 100 tigers a year due to anthropogenic insults across its range nations. ‘Paper Tigers’ were presented in international symposiums, workshops and conferences over and over to captivate the political, social and scientific momentums prior to and after St. Petersburg Declaration with little or no actual implementations of conservation action plans on the ground to increase tiger population. In spite of all these, large bodies of academic research papers focusing tigers already exist and the booming numbers of conservation organizations (mainly in the west) along with international campaign and media coverage investing on bringing the iconic tigers from near extinction crises are simply an ironic flip side of the same coin against the backdrop of habitat destruction, conversion of virgin tropical tiger ecosystems to monoculture cash crop to meet high demand for oil palm, aquaculture shrimp farms, rubber and teak plantation for the high market demands for western culture.
Despite the fact 70 million hectares of land that is earmarked as potential Tiger Conservation Landscape (TCL) still exist and three years left to reach Tx2 target by 2022, global tiger population size has not markedly increased. Chances are high that Tx2 target will not be achieved given the timeline therefore question arises with regards to Tx2 in terms of its planning, efficacy, statistical rigor and pragmatic implementation. 70 million hectares of TCL translates to total of 76 tiger conservation landscapes (see figure 2). These fragmented ecosystems are the last remaining habitats for tigers and other endangered faunas and floras. St. Petersburg Declaration to double the tiger numbers hence Tx2 was based on these TCL on figure 2 and out of 76 TCL, 29 of them or 38% of them were further earmarked as high priority TCL for meeting Tx2 target. GIS data on where tigers inhabit in terms of breeding population size and where tigers are functionally extinct that is no tigers were detected since 2008 already exist. Figure 3 delineates the TCLs where tigers are present (red in the map) and where tigers are functionally extinct (yellow in the map) in Indo Malayan ecoregion. Further analysis of GIS data (see figure 4 : All the blue areas are TCLs selected for meeting Tx2 target) on TCL earmarked as Tx2 under GTRP – St. Petersburg Declaration reveals majority of the TCLs to meet the Tx2 target to double the tiger numbers are in fact empty forest when it comes to tiger presence. For example, large swath of ecoregional TCLs straddling the border between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were selected for doubling the tiger numbers when data reveals that these areas have already lost tigers or tigers are functionally extinct (refer to figure 3) due to small and insularized population size with no presence of breeding females. Therefore it is not surprising that Tx2 target will not be met by year 2022 and the wild tiger will remain as paper tiger in the Chinese Year of the Tiger. After all how can tiger numbers be increased let alone doubling it when no tigers have been detected in majority of the tiger conservation landscape (TCL) that are chosen as Tx2 landscape. One can marshal an argument that so called ambitious Tx2 project initiated with weak foundation where prioritizing key tiger conservation landscapes were left out. On the contrary, pockets of fragmented ecosystems under TCLs with tiger presence still exist (see figure 3 : Red in the map) in southern and central India and in Indonesian island Sumatra. Tx2 failed to select these areas as priority TCLs to increase tiger numbers. Had these areas been earmarked as Tx2 landscape, paper tigers could have stood the chance to escape from conference rooms to become true wild tigers to roam free in Asia. Tiger are true landscape carnivore and it requires large areas (often as large as 100 sq km) for hunting, roaming, breeding and establishing its home range. It poses good reproductive capacity and given adequate prey base and quality habitat, its population can bounce back relatively quick. GIS data reveals large tract of fragmented tiger ecosystems exist in India and Sumatra where tiger presence is confirmed. Connecting these isolated and fragmented ecosystems by creating ecological corridors (aka wildlife corridors) to connect disjunct population for gene flow and confirmed breeding purpose hence managing the source-sink meta population structure of tiger conservation landscape against the backdrop of human-induced negative impacts should be at the top conservation priority for Tx2 to reasonably achieve part of its goal to double the tiger numbers by year 2022.
Tigers are breathtaking high profile landscape carnivore that provokes sheer sense of joy and excitement whenever and wherever one can see them. From historical hundred thousand population to mere 3800 within the last 100 years is true testimony to the fact that species long term survival rate is slim unless ecologically valid science bound conservation action plans are at place in an effective timeline. St. Petersburg Declaration to revive tigers from brink of extinction was popularized and spot-lighted over the last nine years yet tiger numbers continue to decline with limited positive impact of to reach Tx2 target to double the tiger numbers by year 2022. In the face of current anthropogenic impacts that looms over almost all tiger conservation landscapes (TCL), prioritizing the conservation action plans that incorporate GIS based ecological data on tiger presence and absence and to focus on creating ecological corridors to connects fragmented tiger landscapes across Indo Malayan ecoregion are top priorities to meet at least the partial target of Tx2 to double the tiger numbers by year 2022. Conservation focus should be on small isolated pockets of tiger conservation landscapes where tigers’ presence is fully confirmed as oppose to large swath of areas where tiger have not been detected for the past five years. Tx2 goal can only be achieved if it shifts its priority from focusing on areas where tigers have not been sighted for over the past 5 years to areas where tiger presence is 100% confirmed for example southern and central Indian fragmented tiger conservation landscape and Sumatran rainforest.
Science Bound Conservation is Required to bring Wild Tigers back from Near-Extinction-Crisis
Like all its felid cousins, tiger is graceful and awesome creature. It is in fact the largest carnivore in felid guild with its historical population range all the way from Turkey to Russia, Indonesia to Japan, and Iran to Thailand. Sadly, current population size is shrunk to mere 3% and tigers now live in handful of nations in South and South East Asia and Russian Far East. It is classed as endangered species with global population possibly range from 3500 to 3800 tigers that are now facing range of human persecution across tropical and semi tropical biomes. Historically, there were hundred thousands tiger but due to unbridled human population and economic growth and other associated causes, tiger numbers quickly plummeted to less than 4000 by the end of 20th century. Tigers now live in an isolated and fragmented patch mosaics surrounded by expanding human encroachments in the form of agricultural and cash crop mono culture expansions across Asia. In spite of the large scale global consensus to help safeguard the remaining wild tiger population over the past half a century and considerable investments on tiger conservation, wild tigers in their native ecosystems are far from secure footing. To help conserve the dwindling and remaining isolated population of tigers across its range nations, science bound conservation initiatives is more than an ecological imperative, it is an absolute priority.
In the year 2010, ambitious Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) was initiated by bringing together governments of all tiger range nations and international conservation organizations in St. Petersburg, Russia. This was the most exciting, monumental and largest gathering of international ministerial in conservation conference that ever took place to help recover single endangered species in Asia. The core objective of the GTRP is to double the tiger numbers by year 2022 coinciding with the Chinese New Year referring to Chinese Year of the Tiger. Surely, the GTRP gained enormous momentum both politically and socially and garnered significant recognitions from international conservation groups and forums. Even high profile Hollywood celebrities like Harrison Ford got involve and gave powerful speech at St. Petersburg. The declaration was made and signed by all tiger states which became St. Petersburg Declaration to help safeguard and double the remaining tiger population in the wild. Nine years has gone past since the inception of GTRP and St. Petersburg declaration, yet tigers long term future security is far from reality. One can make an argument that it is all elite and posh to held high profile international conference followed by submission of glossy and chick posters and publications focusing the plight of tigers, but in reality, the tiger numbers continue to decline in dramatic fashion with little over 100 tigers get killed per year across tiger range nations. Therefore, ‘Paper Tiger’ hardly managed to escape from the conference room and Ivory towers thereby failed to became healthy live tiger with secure future in the wild.
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.”