“Very, very, very few people see tigers in the wild. People go through their entire careers working on tigers and never see them,” said Thomas Gray, a tiger biologist and Recovery Lead for WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative.
One of the few times Gray had ‘seen’ a tiger was during one of his first jobs in conservation in 2007, surveying the Eastern Plains Landscape in Cambodia. It was only in a camera trap image that he saw what he describes as “a lonely female who was worth far more to poachers dead than alive.” The image would be the last time anyone photographed a wild tiger in Cambodia.
It’s been 15 years since, and Gray and his team are on a mission to expand the tiger range and help tigers return to places where they once roamed. Their latest study maps this potential, highlighting the Eastern Plains Landscape as one of the possible sites where tigers may return along with landscapes across 15 countries that have the opportunity to restore Asia’s roar.
When the roar faded
About two centuries ago, tigers roamed across 30 countries in Asia, over 11.7 million km2 from the shores of the Black Sea to the tips of the Korean Peninsula. Today, though they still widely grace the walls of Hindu temples and the pages of Chinese folktales, they are now rarely found in Asia’s natural wilderness.
While recent conservation efforts may have led to a global increase in wild tiger numbers – which were driven to a record low of 3,200 in 2010 – tigers are currently restricted to a decreasing 5 percent of their original range, scattered across fragmented islands of habitat in just 10 countries in Asia.
By 2050, it is estimated that 24,000 kilometres of new roads will be built within the tiger ranges. Meanwhile, up to 20 per cent of wild tiger populations are already impacted by dams. With an upward trend of industrial expansion and urbanisation, tigers as well as other wildlife, continue to face growing risks of habitat loss and fragmentation.
The report warns that a loss in habitat connectivity is a threat to both people and tigers. When forests and grasslands are fragmented, tigers become isolated in smaller populations, increasingly exposed to illegal wildlife trade, conflict with people, while also impacting their genetic diversity.
“Having tigers in a landscape is one of the best ways to protect it and all the other amazing species which coexist with Asia's largest predator,” said Gray.
By combining various datasets – such as the impact of human activity and settlements on tigers, overlap between protected areas and key biodiversity areas, competition in space between areas of tiger habitat and economic development and more – the study led by Gray suggests more than 1,700,000 kilometres square, an area roughly half the size of India, of potentially suitable habitat remaining in at least 15 countries.
In search of homes and higher grounds to roam
While interventions within habitats can help conserve tigers, to do so in the long run, it’s just as crucial to consider the corridors between them. Envisioned by the Government of Nepal in 2001, the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), which stretches across the country’s southern border with India, connects 16 protected areas across both countries together, allowing tigers to roam more freely and safely across their range.
These networks played a major role behind Nepal’s recent conservation milestone of doubling wild tiger numbers. The movement of tigers to Bardia and Banke National Park, which more than tripled their number of tigers since the last census, have significantly boosted nature recovery in both protected areas.
Meanwhile, in Bhutan – a country with more than 72 percent forest cover, 51 percent under protected areas, and home to a thriving population of more than 100 tigers – tigers are increasingly being known as ‘mountain tigers’. In a study by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment Research, camera traps captured tiger images at up to 4,400 metres above sea level. Pugmarks were even recorded at 4,600 metres, marking the Himalayas, where human disturbance is distant and food remains plentiful, a vital refuge for the species.
“[This evidence] opens up avenues for further research in understanding the tiger’s use of connectivity between Nepal and India as well as high altitude habitats, widening opportunities for strengthened transboundary conservation and providing a safe dispersal pathway between protected areas for tigers going ahead,” said Samundra Subba, Research Officer at WWF-Nepal.
Highlighting the importance of connectivity, Gray’s study 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 to.
“This suggests that significant range recovery could be driven by the natural dispersal of tigers — if tigers are given the chance,” said Gray.
Once lost, now returned
But in countries like Cambodia – where hundreds of tigers once roamed just less than 30 years ago – with the species now deemed functionally extinct, one of the few available solutions is reintroduction.
“With little chance of them moving there naturally, we essentially help them by pretty much literally moving a tiger from one place to another,” said Gray.
India’s Panna Tiger Reserve is one success story of tiger reintroduction. When poaching had finally driven tiger numbers down to zero, in 2009, the park’s administration made the decision to translocate one male and two female tigers to Panna in an attempt to restore the species. In late 2010, the first litter of cubs were born. With a few more reintroductions throughout the decade, there are now 54 tigers in the reserve.
In 2017, the Royal Government of Cambodia announced a hopeful – though undeniably complex – initiative to reintroduce tigers working alongside communities on the ground to not only conserve tigers and their habitats, but also boost local ecotourism and improve community livelihoods.
“I feel optimistic,” said Gray, “but reintroduction is always the last resort and it’s always easier and cheaper to effectively protect existing tigers and landscapes.”
The path ahead
While protected areas play an important role in safeguarding tigers, studies have also highlighted the critical role of non-protected areas and lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities for conservation. Despite global celebrations for hard-earned tiger conservation milestones, particularly in South Asia, these are still large, territorial carnivores that hunt – and for many communities living close to wildlife or newly-established conservation areas, human-tiger encounters have risen alongside conflict.
However, if effectively managed with strong political mechanisms and support from local communities, tiger conservation can not only prove successful, but also create new opportunities for local economies and employment. Gray’s report highlights that factoring social and political support for tiger conservation are vital for the success of any future tiger range expansion efforts.
In 2010, when global wild tiger numbers had dipped to as few as 3,200, leaders from 13 tiger range countries came together to set out a goal to double the species’ population by 2022, the next Lunar Year of the Tiger. Since the launch of the Global Tiger Recovery Program, governments and local communities have worked together alongside WWF to restore and improve tiger habitats, enhance connectivity between wildlife corridors, reduce wildlife poaching and trafficking, develop solutions to human-tiger coexistence and a diverse array of other approaches to increase their wild populations – because bringing this majestic animal back will need more than one solution.
With the conclusion of the current Global Tiger Recovery Program (2010-2022), there is an opportunity to adopt a new, aspirational, and more inclusive goal: 'to expand and improve the quality of occupied habitat for tigers - such that collectively, occupied tiger range expands 50% over 2022 levels’.
Whether it’s in forming Tiger Conservation Committees at the highest level of the government, studying social landscapes, or developing high altitude plans for tigers, ultimately, the key to expanding the tiger’s range will be social momentum and bold, collaborative commitments from governments across Asia to ensure that future generations will still be able to see tigers, not just in photographs, but in the wild.
“We’re seeing progress on reintroduction in Kazakhstan. We’re seeing the Chinese government creating the world’s biggest protected area for tigers,” Gray said. "I believe tigers will return to Cambodia, to Laos, and maybe even Viet Nam in my lifetime.”
Restoring Asia’s Roar: Opportunities for tiger recovery across their historic range can be downloaded here.