International Tiger Day - Populations Increase By 20% For The First Time in 100 Years, But There Is Still A Way To Go

International Tiger Day - Populations Increase By 20% For The First Time in 100 Years, But There Is Still A Way To Go

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on Jul 25, 2018

The 29th of July marks the 8th anniversary of International Tiger Day, and almost a decade after its inception, we’re asking: how have things changed for this remarkable animal?

The ‘first’ International Tiger day was held in Saint Petersburg back in 2010, between the 21st and 24th of November, and saw major celebrities such as Leonardo Dicaprio and Naomi Campbell make attendance. The event itself was actually the Tiger Summit, and was hosted by Russian president Vladimir Putin in a bid to offer support to a historically-dwindling animal by endorsing the Global Tiger Recovery Programme. Over the space of just four days, attendees raised more than $30m for the cause – but how have things improved since this most impressive of pledges?

2010 Tiger Summit

Whether there is a direct correlation to Putin’s Tiger Summit or not, it is fact that wild tiger populations have risen for the first time in a century – in fact, between the period of 2010-2016, numbers are said to have increased by over 20%. Encouraging as these stats may be, however, there is still a long way to go before we can feel comfortable about our tiger populations: 2016’s estimated population count stood only at a meagre 3890. Indeed, a 20% rise in population over the space of 6 years is certainly impressive, and there is much to take away from these statistics (government efforts and a crackdown on illegal trade are, of course, proving to be effective methods of tiger protection), but ongoing education, tougher laws, and protection of land will all be necessary if we wish to fulfil the proposed goal from the 2010 Tiger Summit: to double tiger populations by 2022, the next ‘year of the tiger’ (China).

If the goal created back in 2010 is to be realised by 2022, our world will need to be safe enough to accommodate an additional 2500+ wild tigers – a noble goal, considering we’re past the halfway point of the proposed mission. That said, the goal certainly isn’t unrealistic, and with the planet becoming ever-greener, there may be reason to be optimistic. But what could be standing in the way of this major achievement being fulfilled?

As with most at-risk species throughout Asia, deforestation appears to be the biggest challenge faced by tigers. Critically, the Sumatran rainforests are one of the main areas under constant threat at the hands of the palm oil trade, an industry which has also pushed other species (such as orangutans) to the brink. According to National Geographic, 17% of Sumatran forests relied on by tigers were destroyed during the years of 2000-2012. Of the areas destroyed, palm oil was proven to be the main culprit of deforestation, with even protected areas of rainforest becoming increasingly fragmented. Fewer forest areas mean fewer habitats for tigers; the less habitat available for the tigers, the lower the rate of survival for these hungry, territorial animals. And while these beautiful specimens used to roam across most of the Asian continent, they can now only be found in just 7% of their original range, barely making do with their remaining, isolated habitats.

Young tiger cubs

The tragedy of deforestation - in addition to the loss of an iconic, regal species – is that, through human activity, we have historically wiped out 95% of a species which actually provides an inarguable benefit to human beings. Tigers are top predators; their role in the wild to keep the environment healthy. Tigers prevent overgrazing of land by preying on herbivores such as deer which, in turn, has a positive impact on the local people: without tigers to keep plant-eaters in balance, local communities would struggle to seek out resources such as food and water. It is a bitter irony that those who perhaps need tigers the most, are the ones who have driven their numbers down by such an extreme amount.

While the villagers themselves are not solely responsible for the loss of tiger populations (the blame, typically, falls to governments and larger industries), it is important to keep the community educated. One person to agree with this is 31-year-old Singye Wangmo, a forestry officer at Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park. Wangmo has spent the past three years working at the park, and during that time she has faced off against poachers and smugglers – but has never seen a single tiger in the flesh. This is because tigers are elusive creatures; an animal unlikely to ever come into contact with a human being unless under threat, for example, when its habitat is being invaded. Wangmo makes clear the ongoing threat of poachers in Royal Manas National Park, stating that these criminals can enter the park and remain hidden in the forest for weeks. ‘No matter how much we patrol the area, they will keep coming back to carry out illegal activities,’ Wangmo says in an interview with the WWF. And with the illegal wildlife trade being worth around £15 billion per year (the 4th most lucrative illegal trade on earth), it’s almost unsurprising that so many people (including villagers) will put their lives on the line for a slice of the profits. One of the main points of the Tiger Summit 2010 was to illustrate the notion that tigers are worth more alive than they are dead, but the payoff in exchange for animal parts proves attractive to poachers – which is why Wangmo and her team must stop at nothing to protect the enigmatic big cat. ‘The fight to save tigers is our collective responsibility. Human beings are the answer to saving tigers. You and I are the answer.’

Singye Wangmo

(Singye Wangmo. Image courtesy of the WWF)

Indeed, Wangmo’s emphasis on a team effort remains vital, and is something reflected in the efforts of those wildlife organisations and governments working hard to provide a future for these big cats. Nations who have struggled to make a difference on their own (such as Bhutan and Laos) have received financial support through donations and funding, though in the case of Laos, pleas for assistance seem to have amounted to little actual benefit: despite promises to crack down on wildlife trade in the country, a 2016 report shows that tiger farms are flourishing. Not a single arrest had been made at the time of the report, despite foreign aid being given to train rangers and to investigate the crime syndicate. As of April 2018, a reported 700 tiger farms could be found across Laos’ tiny landmass, and the number of tigers held in one farm alone (Soukvannaseng) has doubled since 2016. Teamwork, it appears, means little to some of those nations in attendance at the Tiger Summit all those years ago.

But who are the countries making a positive contribution to the cause? While there are disappointments in the form of Laos (certain groups in Thailand and China have turned a blind eye to mounting pressure, too), there are still nations across Asia who have put in major efforts to stamp out the tiger trade and other such risks for good. Take Nepal, for example: back in 2016 (the halfway-point of the 2022 goal), a panel comprised of representatives from WWF Nepal, the National Trust for Nature Conservation, and the UK’s own Zoological Society of London took place to discuss the scientific, societal and economic reasonings behind tiger protection. Members of the local community, the Nepal Army, the Napal police force, and members of tourism and infrastructure sectors also joined the panel, illustrating how people from all walks of life can come together to learn and make a difference. As a country, Nepal’s conservation efforts have been astounding: previous, similar efforts saw that zero rhinos were poached across the nation over the course of several years, and these efforts were to be replicated for tigers, too. Elsewhere, India – home to more than half of the world’s tiger population – saw various teams of individuals organise week-long celebrations as to build awareness on tiger conservation, inviting members of the community (including children) to learn more about tigers, strengthening their bond with the animal, and asking important questions relating to conservation efforts. More than 4000 people took part in celebrations across the nation.

Perhaps owing to their supreme beauty and strength, tigers haven’t always been the posterboy for conservation: after all, how can an animal this powerful be viewed as a victim? Little by little, the perception of this big cat has developed, with organisations and communities alike growing to understand that what makes the tiger so special, could also be linked to its demise (see: the illegal trade of tiger parts, where various parts of a tiger will be sold off to cure ulcers or even to be used as aphrodisiacs); similarly, a lack of focus on tigers versus other, equally vulnerable species may finally be on the turn-around, with more emphasis being given to the big cats at long last. While there are still failings in some parts of the world, other areas are thriving: take, for example, Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park, where tiger populations have doubled in less than a decade. These efforts, alongside a push for better sanctuaries, reserves and laws (plus a pull away from palm oil production), may help us to reach that so-desired goal in time for 2022, but it will take a combined effort to make it so. Check out our infographic below to learn a little more about tigers, as well as discovering a few small ways in which you can protect this phenomenal animal.

International Tiger Day infographic

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