Before we leap forward into 2016, it’s time to take a look back over the past year and celebrate the successes that are contributing to Tx2, the global goal to double wild tiger numbers. 2015 has been an exciting year for tigers! This year has seen tiger census results from four countries, never-seen-before big cat behaviour caught on camera and great successes in securing tiger habitat, from the snowy Far East to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra.
Read on to discover the top tiger conservation stories of 2015…
1. India’s Tigers Come Roaring Back
2015 kicked off to a great start with India announcing the results of its tiger census in January. The new figures showed an increase in wild tiger numbers; from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 tigers. India is now home to over half of the world’s wild tiger population!
The boost in India’s wild tiger numbers is largely due to better management and improved protection within tiger reserves and other areas that tigers inhabit. This year saw a new tiger reserve declared in the lush landscape of the Terai Arc, making it the 48th tiger reserve in the country, with more planned to be granted tiger reserve status soon.
Poaching still represents the single greatest threat to wild tiger survival and India is no exception. However, with the recent conviction of three notorious tiger poachers (who received seven year jail sentences each and fines) and the strengthening of action on the ground (such as doubling wildlife sniffer dog brigades), the Indian government is taking clear actions to ensure the future of its majestic national animal.
2. Tigers on the Rise in Russia
On the other side of Asia, in the deep snowy landscape of Russia, there was also a promising boost in tiger numbers. January saw a new tiger tracker handbook released and the launch of the once-a-decade, full-range Amur tiger survey. Over 2000 field specialists intricately recorded evidence of wild tigers and their young, combing an area three times the size of the Netherlands!
In May, the preliminary results were released. Up to 540 tigers and cubs, were found to be prowling the Russian Far East. It’s a steady increase from the 2005 census and an amazing recovery from the Amur tiger population’s all-time-low in the 1940s, when there were as few as 40 tigers. Russia’s success is down to strong political commitment, tough punishments for poaching and big investments in rangers and their equipment.
Amur tiger habitat is also being safeguarded: in November, a new national park was declared – protecting 1.16 million hectares of forest that is home to 10% of the world’s Amur tigers. Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve also became Conservation Assured | Tiger Standards accredited (CA|TS) – recognising its world leading role in tiger conservation.
3. Rare Footage of Wild Sumatran Tigers
This year, some amazing tiger footage emerged from the deep tropical jungles of Sumatra! A male and female tiger can be seen interacting for the first time, exhibiting friendly behaviour that is likely to lead to mating.
The female, who is the smaller tiger lying down, can be seen making a soft exhaling sound called Prusten, which tigers use to show when they are non-threatening. The male leans into the frame, touching the female’s muzzle before pulling away and exhibiting a strange looking face in which he bares his teeth, wrinkles his nose and hangs his tongue out. This expression is part of the Flehmen process, which allows the tiger to inhale a scent into a special organ on the roof of their mouth (the Jacobson’s Organ). This allows him to detect the female’s pheromones, which will tell him whether she is ready to mate.
This remarkable video recorded tiger behaviour that has rarely been captured in the wild!
4. Innovative Rainforest Protection
The Indonesian island of Sumatra is one of the last places on Earth where tigers, elephants and orangutans coexist in the wild. This year, 100,000 acres of rainforest received long term protection.
After a decade of hard work, WWF, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project received licenses from the Indonesian government to manage two blocks of forests bordering Bukit Tigapuluh National Park that been originally earmarked for logging concessions. The aim is to restore parts of the concession that have been deforested, set aside areas for income generation to benefit local and indigenous communities and support the forestry operations, all while protecting the majority of forest. It will benefit both the people and the amazing wildlife that lives there, including the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.
5. Survey of the Sundarban’s Tigers
The Sundarbans is the largest block of mangrove forests in the world, famous for its intricate river channels, salt marshes and Bengal tigers. This year, Bangladesh announced that its mangrove forests (making up 81% of the Sundarbans) are home to 106 wild tigers.
This is the country’s first systematic survey using reliable methods and it shows a commendable commitment to tiger conservation. Whilst the number is lower than the previous estimate of 440 wild tigers given in 2004, the method used last time (counting tigers solely based on their paw prints) was less reliable – potentially leading to an overestimation in numbers.
The most important thing is that Bangladesh now has a clear picture of its wild tiger population. It knows exactly how many tigers it has, where they are and it can now protect them accordingly. This is a crucial step towards Tx2, and the first step to ensuring tigers remain in this unique region – the biggest mangrove forest in the world.
6. Bhutan’s First Tiger Census
This year Bhutan, a small country nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, undertook its first ever national tiger survey! It was no easy feat for a country that is 72% dense forest and home to the highest altitude tigers in the world (at over 4000m!). The biologists’ hard work paid off though – tigers were detected in almost all parts of the country, from steep rugged terrain in the north to rich subtropical jungle in the south!
The census showed that Bhutan is home to 103 wild tigers, as well as a rich variety of other wildlife such as snow leopards, wolves, red pandas and takin.
7. Asia Unites Against Poaching
In February, a pioneering international conference was hosted by the Government of Nepal; the Zero Poaching Symposium. The goal? To ignite immediate action to stamp out poaching in Asia.
The symposium brought together representatives from all 13 tiger range countries as well as leading conservation experts from local and international NGOs. Best practice knowledge was shared from different sectors in the effort to combat the escalating illegal wildlife trade. The four day event resulted in representatives from 13 Asian countries committing to immediate action towards zero poaching.
Nepal was the natural host for the symposium having achieved zero poaching twice; first for rhinos in 2011 and second for rhinos, tigers and elephants in 2014.
Tika Ram Adhikari, Director General of Nepal’s Department of Wildlife Conservation and Soil Conservation, said:
“Nepal was proud to host this vital conversation in Asia because we recognize that poaching is robbing us of our wildlife wealth, which includes tigers, rhinos and elephants. We cannot allow wildlife crime to continue to wrap its tentacles deeper into the region. Our individual efforts may win us a few battles, but we can only win the war if Asia presents a united front to stop the poaching, end the trafficking and wipe out demand.”
8. Nepal Makes Tiger History – Again!
Nepal garnered worldwide recognition in 2014 when it became the first country to accomplish a full year of zero poaching for three of the world’s most iconic species – not a single tiger, rhino or elephant was poached. This year, Nepal’s tireless commitment to conservation work once again made history, when Chitwan National Park became the first site in the world to achieve Conservation Assured | Tiger Standards (CA|TS) – the highest accolade in tiger conservation management a country can aspire to.
Nepal’s hard work is paying off; the last tiger survey showed an increase to 198 wild tigers, up from the 121 recorded in 2009. This small Himalayan country will next count its tigers in 2017.
9. Tigers Return to China
February saw the release of ground breaking evidence from the forests China: a tiger family more than 30km from the Russian border.
The video is the first infrared footage of wild tigers so deep into the country and shows that wild tigers are beginning to return to China, which is part of their historic range. This amazing video is the result of decades of conservation work aimed at establishing an inland breeding tiger population in China. In the past, elusive paw prints have been the only hint of the big cats so far from the Russian border.
China has since put tigers on their political agenda, with a plan for a full tiger census in 2016.
10. Amur Tiger Released in Russia
One of the biggest highlights of the year was the successful rehabilitation of a three year old tiger in the Russian Far East.
Nicknamed “Uporny” (the Russian word for stubborn), the young male had been identified as a conflict tiger when he started attacking dogs in a prey depleted area – leading to potential conflict with people. However, rather than confining him to a life of captivity, the Russian government opted to give the tiger a second chance.
Uporny was captured and taken to Utyos Rehabilitation Center, the largest wild animal rehabilitation center in the Russian Far East. Here he was given thorough health checks, vaccinations against common diseases and fed prey to assess his hunting abilities and suitability for release into the wild.
Once it was determined he was ready, he was collared and re-released into a mountainous region on the border of Anyuisky National Park. This vast area is home to a wide variety of tiger prey as well as a female tiger, giving hope that Uporny will not only continue to live wild and free, but also breed – contributing to the recovering tiger population in Russia and Tx2, the global goal to double wild tiger numbers.