Even though tiger numbers are on the rise globally after centuries of decline across Asia, their range, the places on earth where these iconic big cats are found, continues to decline. Squeezed into tiny islands of habitat scattered across just 10 countries in Asia — just 5 per cent of their historic range — the long term survival of tigers continues to be threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation.
But despite the odds, Restoring Asia’s Roar: Opportunities For Tiger Recovery Across Their Historic Range, a new WWF study, highlights that with political will and community backing, there is significant potential to recover the tiger’s threatened range.
*Image on the left represents the historic tiger range, image on the right represents current tiger range. Tigers once spanned over 30 countries, encompassing a wide array of biodiversity and cultural heritage — from the shores of the Black Sea to the tips of the Korean Peninsula. Faced with spikes in infrastructure development, habitat degradation and illegal wildlife trade, tigers have since vanished from across their range. Today, they are squeezed into island habitats scattered across just 10 countries in Asia. Some of these islands are growing after centuries of decline, while others are shrinking.
Factoring human impact and presence in potential expansion areas, the study estimates that 1.7 million km2 of additional habitat is available across 15 countries, which is more than double the size of the current tiger range.
This includes all ten current tiger range countries, such as India and China — and countries where tigers vanished from years ago — such as Kazakhstan and Cambodia. Collectively, this amounts to roughly half the size of India.
On paper, this vision may seem bold and highly ambitious given the scale of the challenges at hand — not to mention the fact that the world is currently grappling with multiple overlapping environmental and humanitarian crises. But the report signals that if governments act urgently and collectively, we still have the opportunity to bring back Asia’s roar.
Here are 6 reasons why this vision for tiger range expansion is both possible and necessary for the long-term survival of tigers:
1. When given the chance, tigers can expand their own range
Though they’re a conservation-dependent species, tigers are built for survival. They roam large distances and can adapt to a wide variety of landscapes — from the humid swampy mangroves of the Sundarbans to the icy mountains of Northeast China.
Owing to these traits, WWF’s new study suggests that if habitats are protected, connected, and stocked with prey, tigers can effectively expand their own range through their natural need to roam.
Traversing through ‘ecological corridors’, or forested tracts that serve as connectivity routes between habitats, tigers are engineered to move between healthy forests, if given the chance. This process is already underway in some parts of their range, thanks to efforts like habitat connectivity, forest restoration and prey base monitoring in several countries.
WWF’s report demonstrates that in every current tiger range country but China, the majority of range recovery areas were within 100 km of current tiger populations — well within the documented distance that tigers are known to disperse.
But even where recovery has been slow, there is hope. In Northeast China, Amur tigers have made a promising comeback after being driven down to nearly 12-16 individuals in 2000. Recent surveys found 55 tigers in the region, and scientists owe much of this recovery to the creation of Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park along the border with Russia — the national park is now the largest protected area for tigers in the world at 14,600 km2. With transboundary cooperation allowing the movement of tigers, there is an opportunity for the big cat to return to travel to other habitats across the country.
2. Tigers are scaling record heights
It’s not just tigers in Northeastern China that are making bold moves.
In recent years, camera trap surveys across the Himalayan region in Bhutan, India, and Nepal have captured evidence of a rising number of ‘high altitude tigers.’ In 2018, tigers were spotted in Bhutan scaling a record-breaking 4,038m above sea level, which is right at the edge of the forest tree line, where typically only small-bodied wildlife are found. In 2020, Nepal recorded a tiger 3,165m above sea level. It’s no wonder some scientists are calling the Himalayas a ‘new frontier’ in tiger conservation.
With every documentation, high altitude tigers are helping to build momentum to strengthen transboundary cooperation in the upper Himalayas through the creation of a transboundary action plan. A study by the Global Tiger Forum in 2019 called for the need to identify possible viable habitats, corridor linkages, anthropogenic pressures, and landscape-level changes to proactively prepare for the movement of tigers from their low-lying landscapes into potential high altitude expansion areas.
Efforts to understand both the sociological and ecological characteristics of these areas have already moved forward. A large-scale camera trap survey in Dadeldhura, Nepal, where a high altitude tiger was recorded at 2,500m three years ago, took place alongside Nepal’s national tiger census. These surveys will help unravel the remaining mysteries around the movements of tigers in these high altitude landscapes.
With political will and social support, South Asian countries have the potential to lead the way in modeling how a transboundary, landscape-level approach can work proactively to manage human-tiger coexistence in areas tigers may disperse to. This leadership will serve as a useful model for Southeast Asia, where tiger numbers continue to dwindle, and where habitat restoration and transboundary connectivity is urgently needed in order to secure their future.
3. Ecosystem restoration: We have blueprints to learn from
Though the challenges are vast, the science has never been greater when it comes to restoring key species back to their historic range.
These many examples are testament to the potential opportunity to expand the tiger’s range. They show that despite the scale of the challenge, indicator species have completely bounced back under similar conditions, returning to places they had vanished from for centuries — when they are prioritized at the highest levels.
Take the gray wolf, for example. In 1995, 41 wolves from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, United States. At the time, they had been absent from the area for over 150 years, driven to extinction by human persecution and habitat fragmentation. As of 2021, there are at least 95 wolves in the park, and scientists say their presence has significantly enhanced the health of the ecosystem.
The tiger’s long-legged feline cousin, the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx), has also seen recovery in recent decades, thanks to reintroduction and habitat recovery efforts across their historic range.
After vanishing from Europe for centuries due to widespread forest clearing, habitat fragmentation, and persecution, they were reintroduced to Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria in the 1950s. With social support from local communities and efforts to restore forests and prey, their range has expanded considerably over the past 52 years. Today, 9,000 to 10,000 Eurasian lynx roam European forests.
These examples have also produced valuable lessons in how to manage human-carnivore coexistence in the short term and long term. In Spain, for example, a range of long-term and short-term measures to manage human-wolf coexistence has supported their natural recovery from across the range, holding key lessons for engaging communities in current and potential future tiger connectivity sites.
4. The roar is already being restored in India
Restoring Asia’s Roar identifies four potential expansion areas in countries where tigers have been driven to extinction — Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Viet Nam. The only way to secure a future for tigers in these countries is through reintroductions.
Tiger reintroductions are always considered a last-resort option. The process of removing the world’s biggest cat from one habitat and releasing it into another takes considerable planning and resources before and after the relocation.
But this landmark conservation feat has already been accomplished with promising early results in India. Despite being home to more than 70% of India’s tiger population, infrastructure development has made it near impossible for some tigers to move between habitats, causing their numbers to plummet in some areas.
Take Rajaji Tiger Reserve for example. Prior to 2021, photographic evidence suggested that only two females remained in western part of the reserve and no signs of breeding were documented since 2006. Translocation was therefore considered a necessary step towards their recovery here, supported by long term actions such as managing human-tiger coexistence, restoring connectivity and increasing protection.
In early 2021, Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand received two tigers from Corbett Tiger Reserve. Today, their movements continue to be monitored and they are often seen together in camera trap images. The plan is to restore three more tigers in the coming years, hopefully leading to a more viable, breeding population of tigers in the future.
Tigers were also reintroduced in Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and research and protocols on how best to accomplish a long-term reintroductions strategy — including how best to engage with communities during and after reintroductions — have also been produced from these large-scale projects.
India’s experiences in translocating tigers offer valuable lessons for countries with no other option but to reintroduce tigers through translocations.
5. Kazakhstan is already advancing landmark plans
After 70 years since a wild tiger’s roar was last heard in Kazakhstan, the country has never been closer to reintroducing tigers back into its former stronghold. This landmark reintroduction effort, which aims to return tigers to the Ili-Balkhash region by 2025, would not be possible without the commitment and leadership from the Government of Kazakhstan and the significant support and cooperation from rangers and local communities in years of prey and habitat restoration work.
The programme will take at least 15 years, and following several years of habitat preparation, which will involve restoring prey populations, tigers plan to be reintroduced by 2025. But plans for restoration work don’t end there; a post release stage includes years of population monitoring, developing sustainable management, ecological tourism and so on.
If successful, Kazakhstan’s reintroduction work could mark the first international tiger reintroduction in history, and will be an invaluable opportunity to secure an expanded, more viable range for future generations of tigers — and all the lives and livelihoods that their presence enables.
6. It’s the Year of the Tiger 2022
This year marks a once in a 12-year opportunity to secure bold commitments for tiger conservation through the Global Tiger Recovery Program (2022 - 2034) that is currently under revision.
In 2010, the world stood together for tigers, united by the vision to invest in and restore some of the world’s most biodiverse places in the world — lifelines that continue to sustain and enrich the livelihoods of millions of people. If it wasn’t for this global intervention, tiger numbers would have likely plummeted across the range.
If we can connect these habitats, we also boost efforts to reverse the loss of nature, an urgent need as we continue to face the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises.
Many of the range recovery areas, such as the Cardamom rainforest in Southwest Cambodia, serve as critical carbon sinks. Protecting these biodiversity strongholds, and other important landscapes, for tiger recovery would also help contribute to global climate change mitigation goals.
This year, we have the unique opportunity to unite again, with several critical policy negotiations that could support the vision outlined in Restoring Asia’s Roar. Decision makers have the opportunity to boost the potential for nature recovery by prioritizing conservation in these identified areas.
To learn more about WWF’s Restoring Asia’s Roar report, see here.