On April 11th 2016, WWF and the Global Tiger Forum released a revised global tiger figure – here’s what the new number means:
HOW MANY WILD TIGERS ARE THERE GLOBALLY?
As of April 2016, the global estimation is 3,890 wild tigers. This recent revision from the 2010 estimate of 3,200 has come primarily from new surveys in India, Russia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The number is higher due to new areas being included in the national surveys, improved survey techniques as well as growth in the population from conservation efforts.
The primary source of the data used was the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species account for tigers. However, while the IUCN Red List account was updated in 2015, the species list only includes data from 2009 up to 2014. Some countries have since added data from systematic, scientifically robust, national surveys and as such these have been included to reflect the status as of April 2016. Tiger population estimates are normally based on adult and sub-adult (i.e. above 1 year old) tigers only. Systematic national scale censuses have not been undertaken yet in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand and therefore their contribution to the global figure is based on very coarse estimations as published in the IUCN Red List account for tigers.
WHY REVISE THE FIGURE NOW?
2016 marks the halfway point to the Tx2 goal and therefore it is important to give some indication of the present status of the population. In 2014, Tiger Range Countries committed to undertake systematic national surveys to provide accurate estimations for an updated global tiger figure in 2016. Many countries have done this, some are still preparing and some understand that full national surveys are now, unfortunately, unnecessary as their national populations have declined to a few isolated individuals.
In preparation for the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, and without the official global tally, WWF and the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) compiled data from the IUCN database and updated where national surveys had taken place since.
DOES THIS NEW ESTIMATE OF 3,890 REPRESENT A TRUE INCREASE IN TIGER NUMBERS?
The estimate in 2010 was 3,200 and the estimate now is close to 3,900. That is an increase. But when we begin to analyse where the increase comes from then we see that it is derived from both more accurate and extensive surveys covering new areas where tigers were suspected, as well as the results of conservation action. Our knowledge of the global tiger population is a little more robust than it was in 2010, which is a good thing and gives some encouragement that our efforts are beginning to pay off. However, we cannot say that all of our conservation action and investment is resulting in success yet, particularly when we know that the threats to tigers are intensifying.
It is also important to understand that once more accurate data is available for those countries without national surveys, this latest global estimate will change. Estimations based on guesswork have often been exaggerated, as we saw in Bangladesh whose 2010 estimate was 440 while their 2015 national tiger survey found 106 tigers. Equally there is no current data available for Myanmar, however wild tigers are believed to be present in certain areas.
It is crucial that governments carry out regular tiger surveys so the global estimate is accurate. Once we know how many tigers we have and where they are, countries can protect them – and with protection comes increased numbers.
THERE WAS SOME CRITICISM OF THE NEW TIGER NUMBERS – WHAT IS WWF’S RESPONSE?
Four tiger biologists issued a Statement of Concern by Tiger Biologists questioning the source and credibility of the data used to compile the new global tiger population figure. The full WWF response can be read here.
Their statement said a ‘report’ was issued by WWF and the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) from which the new figure was derived. This is incorrect. No report was published and the figure was compiled using the best available published data.
WWF and the GTF compiled the updated tiger population figure from the IUCN Red Data listing completed in 2015 (Goodrich et al, 2015). The IUCN assessors (including three of the authors of the statement) totalled the global number at 3,159. Since then, India, Russia, Bangladesh and Bhutan published the results of their national tiger surveys. WWF and GTF updated the IUCN 2015 data with the results of these surveys. Where a range was stated by the IUCN assessment, the lower end of the range was used for the updated tiger population figure. This brought the total to 3,890. No additional survey work or analysis was undertaken by WWF or the GTF.
This information was clearly stated in the press release and all supporting documents.
The statement also claims that the ‘WWF & GTF report’ stated wild tigers are “on track for a doubling in a decade.” This again is inaccurate – the WWF & GTF press release stated that wild tiger numbers have increased globally, but that there is a long way to go and made no claim as to the feasibility of the Tx2 goal.
WWF and the GTF share the concerns of authors of the statement that tiger population data should be based on the best scientific data available. It is for that reason the estimate was based on the IUCN Red Data listing completed in 2015 (Goodrich et al, 2015) updated with the national tiger survey results from India, Russia, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
WWF and the GTF also agreed that the increase in tiger numbers must be balanced with recognition of the severe threats that tigers continue to face. This was clearly stated in the press release and was the message carried by all credible media.
IS TX2 STILL ACHIEVABLE?
Yes, but only with full action, investment and collaboration from all tiger range countries. At the recent tiger conference in Delhi, governments restated their commitment to the Tx2 goal but this needs to be translated immediately into action on the ground or we will miss the window of opportunity. 2016 is the critical halfway point. Tx2 is still possible but it depends on the speed and scale of government action in the next few months. Without increased action, it may become biologically impossible to meet the goal by 2022. If that happens, we may have to revise the deadline but WWF will continue to strive for a safe future for wild tigers, however long it takes.
The threats to tigers are increasing and this new number is not a trigger for complacency, but for action
WHAT ARE THE MAIN THREATS TO TIGERS?
Poaching is at unprecedented levels worldwide and is the most immediate threat to wild tigers. There is a strong demand for tigers, with every part of their body – from whisker to tail – being sought for the illegal wildlife trade.
Habitat loss is another major threat, that endangers both the immediate and long term survival of wild tigers. Tigers are territorial, long-ranging species that need large swathes of forest to survive. It is crucial that their habitat is secured at a landscape level – meaning not only within the protected areas, reserves and national parks, but also the unprotected forest and habitat types that link these areas. These “corridors” are absolutely critical if we are to increase tiger numbers, maintaining genetic diversity among tiger populations.
A recent report has estimated that as much as 40% of tiger habitat has been lost over the last ten years. Without a major collaborative effort and without new solutions, we may lose much more habitat, jeopardising every gain made for tigers. The challenges of balancing infrastructure development, agricultural expansion and urbanisation plus ever increasing conflict between people and tigers and other wildlife are only growing.
But the good news is WWF is working with partners to mitigate these threats as much as possible. Nepal has achieved Zero Poaching – something that can be adapted and replicated across the tiger range countries. Governments are also becoming more willing to discuss green economy solutions when planning future infrastructure.
“Tiger conservation is not a choice, it is an imperative” - India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi
WHY SAVE TIGERS?
Tigers are one of the world’s most iconic species. Being part of our planet’s natural heritage, they have great cultural and historical significance. Yet they are more than just a magnificent animal – they are also crucial for the integrity of the ecosystems in which they live. As top predators of the food chain, tigers keep populations of prey species in check, which in turn maintains the balance between herbivores and the vegetation upon which they feed. Balanced ecosystems are not only important for wildlife, but for people too – both locally, nationally and globally. People rely on forests, whether it is directly for their livelihoods or indirectly for food and products used in our daily lives.
As the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent, natural forests are becoming increasingly important; providing fresh water, clean air and regulating the climate to limit extreme weather, such as droughts and storms.
Tigers not only protect the forest by maintaining ecological integrity, but also by bringing the highest levels of protection and investment to an area. Tigers are an“umbrella species” – meaning their conservation also conserves many other species in the same area. They are long-ranging and require vast amounts of habitat to survive; an adult male’s home range varies from 150 km2 – 1000 km2. Large areas of intact forest therefore must be preserved for tiger conservation. Due to high demand from the illegal wildlife trade, tigers also bring robust enforcement against poaching and habitat encroachment, as well as systematic biological monitoring.
By protecting tigers, we are protecting forests – which ultimately benefits us all.