Tiger Landscapes: New Strategy May Stave Off Extinction

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 21, 2006 (ENS) – Wild tigers have lost 40 percent of their habitat in the past decade and the species is in dire need of better protection, according to a new study released Thursday.

Earth's largest wild cats now occupy only seven percent of their historic range and their remaining habitat is increasingly fragmented and degraded. The report recommends a conservation strategy to protect "tiger landscapes" where core habitat areas are linked with wildlife corridors that provide tigers and their prey the space they need to thrive.

"Wild tigers are slipping away from us," said Eric Dinerstein, an author of the report and a chief scientist with the World Wildlife Fund. "Another decade like the last one will be catastrophic for tigers."

The most comprehensive study of tiger habitat ever conducted, the report was authored by tiger experts from the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park.

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A wild Bengal tiger in India (Photo by J. Seidensticker courtesy Save the Tiger Fund)
The authors warn that threats to the tiger are "mounting, rather than diminishing" and urge a renewed effort to protect tiger habitat and curb poaching.

"A world without tigers is hard to imagine, but red flags are being hoisted across the tiger's range," the report said.

Poaching is on the rise in Indochina and has decimated some tiger populations in India, driven by increasing demand for tiger parts in China and Southeast Asia.

Development and roadbuilding across Indochina is further fragmenting tiger habitat and the clearcutting of lowland rainforests in Sumatra and Malaysia has put further pressure on the world's largest cat.

The study does not estimate how many tigers exist in the wild and the authors said the question "may be impossible to answer."

In 2002, tiger experts estimated 7,500 tigers remained in the wild.

The current number is "far less than that," Dinerstein said.

Scientists estimate that at the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100,000 tigers roamed free.

"This report documents a low-water mark for tigers, and charts a way forward to reverse the tide,” said John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We can save tigers forever. However, tiger conservation requires commitment from local partners, governments and international donors, along with effective, science-based conservation efforts to bring the species back to all parts of its biological range."

The authors call for a "tiger summit" among the leaders of the 13 states where tigers remain to strengthen conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

"Saving wild tigers requires tiger range countries to work together," said Mahendra Shrestha, director of National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save The Tiger Fund, which commissioned the report. "This study provides a blueprint for scientists and the countries that hold the key for the tigers' survival."

The authors say where there is a broad landscape-level conservation vision with "buy-in" from stakeholders, tiger conservation is possible. In tiger conservation landscapes, core habitat areas are linked with wildlife corridors that provide tigers and their prey the space they need to thrive.

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A tiger landscape view on the Indonesian island of Sumatra (Photo by Hank Hammatt courtesy WWF)
While efforts such as protection from poaching, preservation of prey species, and preservation of tigers’ natural habitat have resulted in some tiger populations remaining stable and even increasing, these measures do not result in long-term success, the authors found.

A tiger conservation landscape is an area where there is sufficient habitat for at least five tigers and tigers have been confirmed to occur in the last 10 years.

The authors identified 76 areas in India, the Russian Far East and Southeast Asia where this strategy could work.

Half of these landscapes can still support 100 tigers or more, and seven have the potential to support 500 or more tigers.

The largest tiger landscapes exist in the Russian Far East and India and the report recommends focused efforts to protect the 20 highest priority landscapes.

"People save what they value," said John Seidensticker, senior scientist at Smithsonian's National Zoological Park and chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council. "We must make live tigers worth more than dead tigers and make landscapes more valuable with tigers than without."

Between 1998 and 2003, $23.3 million was invested in all tiger conservation landscapes, with the two largest donors being WWF and Save The Tiger Fund.

To keep tigers alive in the wild, the authors say four goals must be accomplished during the next 10 years.

Tiger populations must be secured in all global-priority tiger landscapes.

Reserve status must be obtained for 10 places with unprotected breeding tiger populations.

At least five tiger habitat corridors must be established between fragmented tiger conservation landscapes.

And, the range of breeding tigers must be expanded in at least five priority tiger conservation landscapes.

Saving the species rests on the cooperation of national governments and local communities, the authors conclude, and there need to be incentives that encourage humans to coexist with tigers.

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A camera trap captures a tigress moving her cubs in Huai Kha Khaeng, Thailand (Photo courtesy WCS)
The report recommends incentives be offered to restore degraded tiger habitat and dispersal corridors as part of an effort to tie tiger protection to conservation of natural ecosystems, including stable water supplies, and to improved rural natural resource management.

The study highlights positive conservation developments within the Terai Arc Landscape Project, which aims to link 12 protected areas in the Himalayan foothills along the border between Nepal and India.

The program allows community forestry outside of the protected areas to the benefit of local communities, who are in exchange helping to restore degraded corridors and safeguard endangered species, including tigers.

Tigers are already using some of the partially restored corridors, the authors said, and the local communities are supporting anti-poaching efforts.

The successes of the project "indicate that creating large conservation landscapes for tigers and other iconic species of Asia's wildlife is possible, even in human-dominated landscapes," the report finds.

"The challenge of saving the tiger is the heart of conservation," Seidensticker told reporters Thursday at a press briefing at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. "A world without tigers is a world without hope … and would be a terrible disregard for the environment that sustains us all."

The report can be found online at: http://www.tigermaps.org