© Joseph Vattakaven
A Conversation With Joseph Vattakave

On the anniversary of the St Petersburg Tiger Summit which set the TX2 goal to double the world’s wild tiger population, Joseph Vattakaven, leading tiger biologist at WWF Tigers Alive, narrates why he dedicated 15 years of his life to tiger conservation, and what he’s doing to support TX2.

After five years in the forests and grasslands of Central India, where he intensively tracked and documented the lives and behaviours of wild tigers in a way that had not been done before, Joseph decided to join WWF, where in his words, he could, “Give back to the wild tiger that gave me so much indescribable joy and an intrinsic sense of connection with the wild”.

Now Joseph traverses between developing tiger recovery plans with tiger-range governments to working in the field with scientists, local communities and conservation partners.

Why are tigers so special to you?

We will have to go way back to answer this question! As a child, I read the Jungle Book and was fascinated by the character of Mowgli. I dreamed of being like him and of meeting tigers in the wild.

I carried my love for tigers well into adulthood so when I got the chance to track and monitor tigers in the wild, it was a dream come true.

For five years, day in and day out, my life was all about them.

Joseph at a rescue centre, carrying one of the rescued cubs in 2005 after their mother was killed
© Joseph Vattakaven / WWF

I breathed and dreamed wild tigers. Working with a team, we travelled across Central India’s tiger landscapes and radio-collared more than 10 adult tigers – each was systematically tracked for at least 10 consecutive days. At that time such intense levels of tracking and monitoring had never been done before.

This experience changed my life. I saw them stalk and hunt prey in front of my eyes, I watched the same cubs that used to play-fight with each other, grow up to fight for territory and mates when they became adults, and I even witnessed as a tigress moved her cubs to safety after giving birth to them just a couple of hours before. Tigers are such beautiful and intelligent creatures.

As the biggest cats on the planet they are simply majestic.

The global tiger population has suffered such a devastating decline since the time you were a child reading the Jungle Book. Could you share some of the threats to wild tigers today?

We have gone from an estimated 100,000 tigers a century ago to only around 3,900 today. This is more than a 95% decline and is absolutely alarming given how quickly their population dropped, mostly due to unchecked poaching and habitat destruction.

It’s not just the tumbling numbers that are worrying, tiger habitats have been lost to human activity as we keep encroaching on their territories, destroying the forests, grasslands and mangroves in which they live, causing tigers to lose so much of their space that they are found in just around 5% of their historical range today.

Unfortunately, poaching and habitat loss are the same threats that wild tigers face currently, but perhaps more insidious. Poachers are hired by criminal syndicates to trap wild tigers using cheap wire snares, in order to sell them in the illegal wildlife trade, now the world’s fourth largest illegal trade valued at around US$20 billion.

A Barasingha at early morning in Kanha, a key tiger habitat in Central India
© Joseph Vattakaven

It has been 8 years since the TX2 goal to double the number of wild tigers was committed to by 13 tiger range governments. How did they come to agree on such a bold and ambitious goal ?

The decision to double their numbers is not surprising – to double tigers globally would only represent a first, albeit huge, step towards securing their future, to put a safe distance between them and the threat of extinction.

We also know that tigers are an umbrella species and an indicator of ecosystem health. If tigers are gone, it would spell trouble for us too. So protecting them makes practical sense, as it is linked to our need for ecosystem services like clean air, fresh water, food, medicine and even jobs.

But if you think about it, for such high-level state leaders to actually convene and commit to the protection of a single species is almost illogical, almost unheard of back in 2010!

Personally, I believe it boils down to the mystical charm that the tiger has.And this goes beyond exacting the economic value that protecting wild tigers can bring us. The tiger is well-loved, perhaps even revered, and the power and boldness that the tiger represents probably inspired the TX2 goal. Ultimately, TX2 represents ambition; it is a visionary goal.

The tiger, as an apex predator, is an umbrella species that is key to maintaining natural ecosystems that make up the web of life.
© Joseph Vattakaven

Just this month, you published a new study together with 48 other tiger conservation experts. The study finds that 18 tiger recovery sites identified under WWF’s global tiger programme have the potential to triple their tiger populations. What does this mean for the future of wild tigers?

From our analysis, we found that tiger populations in these 18 sites found across Asia, have the potential to triple their current population of 165 to around 585. Some key sites could do it within the span of a human generation, but many others are more likely to achieve it with a much longer time frame.

This is an important study as it means there is strong potential for the long-term recovery of tiger populations, with the emphasis that it is only possible when matched with political willingness, effective law enforcement against poaching and mitigating human-wildlife conflict in these areas.

With this, we are able to have a realistic look at the timeline and framework required for tiger recovery at each specific site, now rather than later. More of such fine-level analysis is needed to tell us what is lacking, what it would take, how can we get there faster, based on what is ecologically possible, at each site. We must recognize that tiger recovery needs time and requires deep and sustained commitment from various stakeholders. In most of these sites, the tiger populations are already increasing, if we stay committed we will get there eventually.

Recovery of tiger populations requires time and deep, sustained commitment from various stakeholders.
© Joseph Vattakaven

How about the TX2 goal to double the global population of wild tigers by 2022? Do you think this is realistic?

The potential is undoubtedly there, but whether we will get there by 2022 will remain a question – probably to be answered by the next Chinese year of the tiger in 2022! The study we talked about shows there is strong potential, but we can’t use that as a basis to judge whether we would double tiger numbers by 2022 – as we won’t be talking about just 18 sites anymore, globally we are looking at hundreds of tiger sites!

Tiger recovery needs time but there are factors that people can control such as ensuring strategic tiger recovery plans are endorsed at the national level, strengthen anti-poaching, mitigate conflict and engage local communities. It will be impossible to achieve TX2 without looking at this entire spectrum, all the way from the most remote wilderness to the very centres of political power. Countries need to commit now for the long-term, in order to deliver what was promised in tiger recovery plans that began from the 2010 Tiger Summit.

A tigress looking ahead in sal forest light. Countries need to commit now for the long-term, in order to deliver what was promised in tiger recovery plans that began from the 2010 Tiger Summit
© Joseph Vattakaven

Earlier this month, China decided to postpone the decision on lifting the ban on tiger bone and rhino trade. There was some discussions that legalizing the trade in tiger bone, by using farmed tigers, could help reduce poaching pressures on wild tiger population. What is your take on this?

This argument of farming tigers to protect them in the wild simply doesn’t hold. Having parallel systems of legal and illegal trade in tiger parts would make it impossible for law enforcers to differentiate which products come from farmed tigers, and which are illegally killed in the wild. It would also legitimize tiger trade and increase the demand for poaching tigers in the wild. With so few wild tigers left, this is simply too much of a gamble. We cannot afford to experiment on an endangered species.

For me, tigers belong in the wild. I cannot imagine it any other way! If you bring tigers up like a chicken, cage them like a chicken, make them into soup or whatever people want to consume them for, it simply goes against the idea of conservation and kills our connection to the wild. We don’t want to be telling our children that it is okay to consume tigers – a powerful, majestic animal that we ought to be in awe and respect of, that is woven into most of Asia’s diverse and colourful history, and in some cultures, a being which we have worshipped for centuries.

That may be a reason why some people would want to consume tiger parts. It is a symbol of the wild and people think by doing so they can embody its spirit. But they are so terribly wrong.

An adult tiger in a captive breeding facility suspected to farm tigers, in order to sell their bones and other body parts to the illegal wildlife trade; this tiger will likely end up in the black market. Tiger farms are fuelling the demand for tiger parts and need to be phased out.
© Janissa Ng / WWF-Singapore

What do you hope to see for tiger conservation?

My hope is for future generations to be able to live on a planet where tigers persist, that they may be able to enjoy the sight and presence of this animal in the wild. Whether or not we double their numbers by 2022 is not as important as stabilizing their population and ensuring they survive well into the future, together with us.