When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) roared the news last week that “for the first time in 100 years, tiger numbers are growing”, the media, including the New York Times, splashed the headline around the world. Few journalists checked out the headline or the facts. After all, WWF said so. Yet, as science writer and conservationist Elizabeth Kemf points out, the reality is far different.
Not so fast “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is a mantra many investigative journalists abide by. In fact, tiger numbers are at their deepest level of decline in over a century. There were more tigers in India in 1983 (4,000), than there are in the world today: 3,890.
According to WWF and IUCN (World Conservation Union) there were 5,000-7,200 tigers in the wild in 2002. Today IUCN’s Red List states global tiger populations are “decreasing”. Globally, they are not “growing”.
It’s wishful thinking by WWF and the GTF to suggest that tiger numbers could increase to 6,000 in the wild by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. Surely they know that China now has 7,000 tigers in farms, more than the world has in the wild?
A former editor of WWF’s flagship publication WWF News and later WWF International’s Species Conservation Coordinator, I would desperately like some good news to spread about tigers. I was invited by the Indian Government to celebrate and write about India’s Project Tiger in 1993.
India has done more than any other country in the past 50 years to save its iconic symbol. Estimated at 40,000 in 1900, India’s tigers had declined to 2,500 in 1969. The government banned tiger shooting. But by 1972 the population had reached a low of 1,827.
Flanked by dedicated Indian scientists, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi waged a battle for their survival. A year later, in 1973, India launched its Project Tiger, with a commitment by the Indian government of US$16 million, and WWF pledged US$ 1 million. This concerted conservation campaign achieved an increase of 62% in 7 years.
By 1994, India’s tiger numbers were again starting to slide again, down to a maximum of 3,750. Survey methods and accuracy were disputed, but there was no doubt that the trend was downward.
By 2006 the figures were shocking: only 1,411 tigers remained. India rallied again as it had in 1969. In 2014, India announced its tigers were making a comeback for the first time in 8 years: the population had risen to 2,226. Sadly, this was about half the number of tigers it had in 1983.
Elsewhere, in the past decade, tigers have decreased by 75% in Bangladesh (down to 109) and gone functionally extinct in 5 range states including Cambodia, China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Latest reports indicate zero left in Cambodia, possibly, two remaining in Laos, fewer than five in Vietnam, perhaps seven in China, and maybe 10, if any, in North Korea. According to IUCN’s Red List, Myanmar (also known as Burma) does “not currently support known breeding populations, although it still has large landscapes with suitable tiger habitat”, as do Vietnam and Laos.
Cambodia released a Tiger Action Plan this month, and some conservationists are proposing relocating tigers to range states where they have gone extinct.
It’s not a solution all tiger scientists from the region support. Dr Ullas Karanth, a member of IUCN’s Tiger Specialist Group and Director for Science-Asia of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) warns: “The idea of translocating captive-bred tigers from India to Cambodia is bereft of any ecological understanding or even of the Cambodian social context.”
Dr Karanth questions not only the accuracy of India’s 2014 survey methods but also the WWF and GTF goal of doubling global tiger numbers by 2022. He considers the target “unrealistic”, despite signs that tiger populations have inched upward in Russia, Nepal and Bhutan.
On 16 April, he and other leading wildlife biologists issued, according to the Times of India article, a “Statement of Concern” expressing doubts about tiger numbers rising: “…Using flawed survey methodologies can lead to incorrect conclusions, an illusion of success, and slackening of conservation efforts, when in reality grave concern is called for”.
It is much too early to break out the champagne. We conservationists need to focus our efforts on persuading governments and the public to help us save the few remaining tigers in the wild and their endangered habitat and end the treacherous trade in this magnificent animal’s body parts.
Elizabeth Kemf is a journalist, anthropologist and author. She edited WWF’s flagship publication, WWF News, from 1981-1991, and was invited by the Indian Government to celebrate and write about India’s Project Tiger in 1983. From 1994-2002, she served as WWF International’s Species Conservation Coordinator/Conservation Information Manager and Editor and Author of WWF’s Species Status Reports.