Sustainability Environment

Wild tiger numbers are up by 40 percent globally

Better monitoring has a lot to do with the increase, as well as conservation efforts.

Story at a glance

  • The number of tigers in the wild has risen by 40 percent since 2015.

  • Better monitoring in host countries has helped scientists locate more animals.

  • Tigers continue to be categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List, although the conservation group believes that “recovery is possible as long as conservation efforts continue.”

The number of tigers in the wild is 40 percent higher compared to data from 2015, according to the latest update published to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The jump in numbers is testament to both improved monitoring efforts, which can help provide a more accurate picture of the overall state of tigers in the wild, and the impact of conservation programs such as the Global Tiger Forum, the Global Tiger Initiative or WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative.

“It is likely that much of the increase can be attributed to better monitoring and more comprehensive surveys carried out in the countries,” said Abhishek Harihar, Deputy Director of the wild cat conservation organization Panthera’s Tiger Program. “There have also been increases in some places as a result of conservation efforts, however the contribution of these increases to this 40 percent rise has been limited.”

Tigers continue to be categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List, which is the world’s most comprehensive source on the extinction risk of animals, fungi and plants, although the conservation group believes that “recovery is possible as long as conservation efforts continue.”

Nepal almost triples tiger numbers

On Global Tiger Day, the government of Nepal has also announced the almost tripling of its tiger population from 121 in 2010 to 355 today, in big part thanks to the country’s decades-long efforts restoring wildlife corridors, expanding tiger habitats and increasing law enforcement to tackle wildlife crime.

“Nepal’s new tiger population estimate shows that it is possible to save a species from the brink of extinction and gives us a real reason to celebrate this Global Tiger Day,” commented Ginette Hemley, Senior Vice President for Wildlife Conservation at WWF.

“A key challenge moving forward is to ensure cohabitation between people and nature, as well as to reconcile the country’s growth aspirations with the need to keep nature secure,” noted Pem Narayan Kandel, Secretary at Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment. 

A turning point for tigers amidst increased threats

As apex predators, tigers play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, including a balance between prey animals and the forest vegetation which they feed upon. Tiger landscapes also offer a critical source of drinking and irrigation water to over 830 million people in Asia, are crucial carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots, and can protect local communities from natural hazards such as floods or landslides.

Yet tiger numbers suffered a significant decline from around 100,000 a century ago to an all-time low of 3,200 in 2010 due to a multitude of threats, including habitat loss, poaching and wildlife trafficking and human-wildlife conflict. The latest IUCN figures estimate the current numbers to be between 3,726 and 5,578.

2010 nonetheless marked a pivotal moment for tiger conservation as the 13 tiger range countries gathered at the first Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg and committed to doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022.  As a result of concerted efforts to restore wild tiger populations, including the Global Tiger Recovery Program launched at the summit, 2016 saw — for the first time in the history of tiger conservation — a reversal in population decline.

“It is unlikely that we will achieve the doubling that we committed to in 2010. But many tiger range countries have made significant progress towards securing and recovering populations,” added Harihar.

Regional differences    

The global estimate for wild tigers might be on the rise, but progress has not been uniform across tiger range countries.  

While India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia and China made crucial progress in increasing the population of tigers in the wild, Malaysia reported a steep decline in numbers and tigers have become practically extinct in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, a recent WWF impact report on tiger recovery found.

Improved connectivity

China established the world’s largest protected area for tigers, while Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park tripled its tiger population thanks to improved patrolling efforts and a well-functioning wildlife corridor which facilitates the movement of tigers across the border with China to access food and mates. If these corridors were lost, tigers would be confined to smaller populations, reducing their genetic diversity and ability to sustain a minimum viable population.  

Effective use of conservation tech

In Bhutan, the effective use of conservation technology, including the Spatial Monitoring and Report Tool (SMART) has helped the Roya Manas National Park double the number of tigers since 2012.  With data such as wildlife sightings and illegal activity logged on the SMART app real time, the 102 rangers overseeing the park were able to develop more informed patrol strategies. Parks in Bhutan also partnered with wireless company Sigfox to allow rangers to send alerts even in areas of low connectivity.

Expanding to new habitats

Due to widespread habitat loss tigers today are restricted to less than 5 percent of their historic range. However, as population numbers start to recover, tigers are able to expand to landscapes beyond their traditional range.

In 2020 in Nepal, the record for the highest altitude for a tiger sighting was broken at 3,165m. In India, a tiger was photographed at 3,600m, and in Bhutan, tigers have been caught on camera as high as 4,100m. These sightings reinforce the potential for the Himalayas to become a stable tiger habitat, which is especially critical amidst a warming climate.  

Although tigers had gone extinct in Kazakhstan over 70 years ago, the country set out to bring back the iconic big cat to its Balkhash region by 2025. Preparations include building up the prey population, partnering with local communities on strategies to prevent potential human-wildlife conflict once tigers return to the area and investing in ranger infrastructure and capacity-building. If successful, the initiative will mark the first international tiger reintroduction in history.

Continued poaching and trafficking of tigers

Despite the tailwinds made in certain countries, challenges continue to exist. Southeast Asia grapples with the consequences of the rampant poaching and trafficking of tigers. Tiger farms which often serve as breeding facilities for the illegal trade of tigers and tiger parts hold over 8,000 tigers in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and China — a much higher figure than the total number of tigers left in the wild.

A misguided belief in their medicinal value also fuels consumer demand for tiger products. A survey by non-profit TRAFFIC found that over 83 percent of tiger product buyers in Vietnam bought tiger bone glue, a brown substance made by boiling tiger bones over a long period, and which is thought to treat a variety of bone problems.

The future of tiger conservation

The gains made in the last 12 years are significant but also fragile.

“The fact that there are more wild tigers now than were estimated during the previous IUCN assessment is a sign that high-level political commitments and the collaborative conservation efforts of the past twelve years are working,” said WWF’s Hemley. “While this is good news overall, tiger numbers continue to decline in much of Southeast Asia. For tigers to recover across their historic range, we need to do three things: conserve large areas of healthy, connected habitat; strengthen law enforcement to help clamp down on poaching and illegal tiger trade; and help reduce consumer demand for tigers and their parts.”

Future efforts need to focus on strengthening collaboration with local communities to ensure that they too benefit from conservation efforts and to mitigate human-tiger conflict. Stepping up transboundary conservation will be key to improving connectivity between protected areas across countries. There is also great potential in the rewilding of tigers in both their historic territories and new, high-altitude habitats.

The 2nd Global Tiger Summit in September this year will play a critical role in determining the next 12-year plan for tiger recovery. A coalition of NGOs has recently come together to develop a shared vision for tigers which could lay the foundation for future conservation efforts and pave the way for a conservation community defined by collaboration rather than competition.

Trang Chu Minh previously wrote about the world’s rarest great ape for Changing America.