Tigers have disappeared at a rate faster than almost any other animal except for maybe the rhinoceroses. The WWF says tigers worldwide are in serious danger of becoming extinct in the wild. During the last 100 years their numbers have collapsed by 95 percent, from 100,000 in 1900 to around 3,200. There are presently more tigers in zoos, homes and circuses than there are in the wild. The United States is home to some 10,000 tigers, owned by zoos and private citizens.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Carter S. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post, “A century ago, some 100,000 tigers roamed the wilderness across much of Asia. But 100 years of human overhunting of tigers' prey, such as deer and wild pigs, and of poaching driven by demand for tigers' skins and other body parts has been catastrophic. As few as 3,200 tigers remain, living in only 7 percent of their original natural habitat. [Source: Leonardo DiCaprio and Carter S. Roberts, Washington Post, November 7, 2010]
According to some sources one third of the breeding-age tigers were lost between 1986 and 1995. Most of these losses were due to loss of habitat as a result of deforestation and human population increases and poaching to meet the demand for tiger-based Chinese medicines, suddenly affordable to Chinese that had money to buy such things as their economy was growing.
Today, poaching for tiger part Chinese medicines is regarded as the biggest threat to wild tigers. Skins sell as rugs and cloaks on the black market, where a skin can fetch up to $20,000 in countries like China. Tiger skins were in high demand in Tibet where well-heeled people use them as festival costumes. In Nepal, kings used to stand on tiger skins in front of stuffed tigers for special occasions. Some affluent Nepalis have mounted tiger heads on the walls of their living rooms. Habitat destruction and depletion of prey base are also depleting tiger numbers. Deforestation and urban growth bring the cats ever-closer to human settlements — and into conflict with villagers who will hunt any wild animals near their communities or livestock.
There are worries that tigers might be extinct in the wild in 5 to 10 years. Three subspecies of tiger have already become extinct: the Caspian tiger, which became extinct in the 1970s; the Javanese tiger, which became extinct in the 1980s, and Balinese tiger, which became extinct in the 1940s. Tiger reserves in some countries may no longer hold tigers. There are more Siberian and Chinese tigers in captivity than there are in the wild.
Tiger Numbers and Range
There are an estimated 3,200 tigers living worldwide in the wild today. Wild tigers are still found in 14 Asian countries, including China and Russia. India is home two-thirds of world's tigers. There were around 100,000 tigers worldwide at the turn of the 20th century. There were around 11,000 in the mid-1960s and 5,500 to 7,500 in the early 1980s.
Estimated tiger populations (1997 when there were thought to be 5,000 to 7,000 tigers): 1) India, 2,500-3,750; 2) Myanmar (no estimate available); 3) Malaysia, 600-650; 4) Russia, 430 to 470; 5) Indonesia, 400 to 500; 6) Bangladesh, 300 to 460; 7) Thailand, 250 to 600; 8) Laos (no estimate available; 9) Vietnam, 200 to 300; 10) Nepal, 180 to 250; 11) Cambodia, 100 to 200; 12) Bhutan, 50 to 240; 13) China, 20 to 30 South China tigers; 14) North Korea, fewer than 10. Counting tigers is tricky and unreliable (See Endangered Tigers).
Tigers are found in several habitats but they prefers dense forest underbrush, and tall grasses which allows them to sneak up on their prey. They are very elusive and are rarely seen by humans. Even some scientists who study them have never seen them in the wild.
Counting tigers is no easy task. Because tigers are so difficult to find in the wild, censuses are conducted by counting tiger paw prints and studying prey and feces samples in a given area; using sampling techniques to calculate in tigers they may have missed; and extrapolating that number over an area where tigers are thought to live. By making plaster casts of tiger prints researchers are able to tell one animal from another.
Governments and park officials sometimes inflate numbers for P.R. reasons and underestimate numbers to receive funding from organizations to help endangered tigers. According to report on India, "State administrators appear to deliberately conceal the loss of tigers to poachers.
World's Tigers Years Away from Extinction - Experts
In October 2009, Reuters reported: “Tigers could become extinct in the wild in two decades unless the world ramps up conservation efforts to halt the decline in their population, wildlife experts said. Barely 3,500 tigers are estimated to be roaming in the wild in 12 Asian countries and Russia compared with about 100,000 a century ago, experts and conservationists said. [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, October 28, 2009 ^]
"A business as usual approach in tiger conservation will doom the tiger population in the next 15 to 20 years," Mahendra Shrestha, programme director of the Washington-based Save the Tiger Fund told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference on tiger conservation. He said law enforcement, patrols to stop poaching and the preservation of remaining habitat would improve the situation. "There is hope. We can do it. It is not rocket science. It does not require a lot of new activities," Shrestha said. "But there has to be strong political will to conserve tigers and also strong global international support for the activities of the tiger range countries." ^
Tigers still roam terrain in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. John Seidensticker, chief scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Conservation Ecology Center, said tiger habitat had declined by 40 percent in the last decade due to destruction of forests. "Our challenge is to make landscapes with tigers alive worth more than landscapes where tigers have been killed," Seidensticker said. "I think we have a decade from where we will slip from being caretakers to undertakers." (Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Ron Popeski) ^
Loss of Tiger Habitat and Prey
Loss of habitat and dwindling food supply are regarded as the biggest problem facing tiger populations, particularly in India where there are over 1 billion people and hundreds of millions of head of cattle. Geoffrey Ward wrote: "Poaching is murder, but crowding is slow strangulation...Tigers need unmolested forest in which to multiply."
Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India Program, told the New York Times: “The biggest threat to tiger survival is habitat destruction and the uncontrolled hunting of tiger-prey species. We have plenty of forest areas where there should be tigers, but their numbers are low there because the prey species have been hunted out by local people. So it turns out that if you want to protect tigers, you also need to protect the deer. [Source: Claudia Dreifus, New York Times, August 16, 2005]
Rama Lakshmi wrote in the Washington Post, In India in 2010 “tigers have disappeared from about one-fourth of the area they inhabited four years ago. Big cat biologists say that there is less opportunity and space for the tigers to disperse. As the Indian economy grows at a frenetic pace and the human population swells, biologists say that tiger habitat will continue to shrink, further boxing them into isolated patches. [Source: Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, April 24, 2011]
Naturalist now believe the most important factor in ensuring the survival of tigers is the prey supplies. Tigers do well in places where they are lots of deer, wild boars and other animals for them to hunt. They struggle in areas where large animals have been poached. George Schaller's pioneering 1967 study “The Deer and the Tiger” addressed this point.
Loss of prey rather than loss of habitat and hunting are believed to have been the main factor in the extinction of the Caspian, Bali and Javan tigers. Karnath told National Geographic, "After providing protection, management's most important role should be to build up prey base. With enough to eat, enough space, and enough protect, tigers will take care of themselves."
Endangered Tigers in China
South China tiger Conservationists estimate that there are less than 400 tigers left in China today. These tigers are members of three sub species: Bengal, South China and Northeastern (or Manchurian, similar to the Siberian tiger). The rarest are the South China tigers.
There are thought to be only 25 to 50 South China tigers remaining in the wild. They live in four disconnected enclaves of mountain forest in southern China, mostly in Hunan province. It is unlikely they will survive much longer. Some think the species will die out in the wild by 2010. It was declared extinct by one conservation group in 2002,
There are only about 60 to 70 South China tigers in zoos. Some have been born at the Suzhou Zoo. A special reserve is being set up for them in southern China that was scheduled to open in 2008 as a tie in with the Olympics in Beijing.
A South China tiger was reportedly photographed by a farmer in October 2007 in a mountainous area of Shaanxi in northwest China. Many had thought the subspecies had died out in the wild. It had been a couple decades since one had officially been spotted. After close scrutiny on the Internet, many thought the photo was a fake---perhaps a paper tiger manipulated with Photoshop---created by forestry officials to draw tourists to Shaanxi. In the the photograph was determined to be a fake and the official behind it was sent to prison.
Endangered Tigers in Southeast Asia
Tigers are being lost in Southeast Asia at a rate of about one a day and 10 annually. Fewer than 300 tigers remain in the wild in Thailand.
In January 2010, AFP reported: “In Southeast Asia’s Greater Mekong region tiger numbers have plunged more than 70 percent in 12 years, the WWF. The wild tiger population across Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam has dropped from an estimated 1,200 in 1998 — the last Year of Tiger — to around 350 today, according to the conservation group. The report was released ahead of a landmark three-day conference on tiger conservation attended in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin by ministers from 13 Asian tiger range countries. [Source: AFP, January 26, 2010]
The reported cited growing demand for tiger body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine as a major factor endangering the region’s Indochinese tiger population. Infrastructure developments were also blamed by the report for fragmenting tigers’ habitats, such as roads cutting through forests. Nick Cox, coordinator of the WWF Greater Mekong tiger programme, said, “There is a potential for tiger populations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to become locally extinct by the next Year of the Tiger, in 2022, if we don’t step up actions to protect them.”
Although Indochinese tigers were once found in abundance across the Greater Mekong region, the WWF says there are now no more than 30 tigers per country in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The remaining populations are mainly found in mountainous border areas between Thailand and Myanmar.
The WWF is calling on the ministers in Hua Hin to take action to double the numbers of wild tigers by 2022. “This region has huge potential to increase tiger numbers, but only if there are bold and coordinated efforts across the region and of an unprecedented scale that can protect existing tigers, tiger prey and their habitat,” said Cox.
In places like Thailand and Laos, large animals have been hunted out of existence and tigers have been forced to try and survive by eating porcupines, monkeys and 40-pound munthacs — animals that are hard to catch and provide very little meat. In Laos, snares have cleared out many mammals. Tigers have to roam far to find a meal and their populations are now regarded as too small and scattered to survive in the long term.
Endangered Tigers in Myanmar and Cambodia
The Christian Science Monitor reported: “Burma is a particular worry because it doesn’t control all its borders and armed militia groups often turn a blind eye or profit from illegal activities, such as gambling and prostitution, in self-governed enclaves. One group, the Wa, may be prepared to stop wildlife trade in its territory on China’s southwest border, though it hasn’t acted yet, according to TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors the wildlife trade. “Wildlife has not been high on their list of priorities. Frankly, it’s easy money to move wildlife,” says William Schaedla, the Southeast Asia director for TRAFFIC. “Burma has around 85 surviving tigers, mostly found in reserves along its borders with India and Thailand. But its illicit markets are also a hub for regional wildlife smugglers who target wealthy consumers in China and Vietnam.[Source: Simon Montlake, Christian Science Monitor, November 24, 2010]
There are only a few dozen tigers left in Cambodia at most. Their long term chances of survival are regarded as dubious at best. Two thirds of the remaining forests, where tigers live, have been sold to timber concessions. By some counts two or three tigers a month were killed by mines and poachers in the 1990s. One hunter interviewed in northeast Cambodia said that he had personally shot 30 tigers.
Poachers in northeast Cambodia sometimes use explosives to kill tigers. They catch a pig or a game animal and tie to explosives to it. When a tiger takes the bait it detonates the explosives. Some poachers hang a monkey from a tree on top of a mine. When the tiger leaps to get the monkey it sets off the mine when it lands. The mines tend to blowout the tigers under belly leaving most of the skin and fur intact and able to fetch a good price. The bones are often the most valuable tiger parts.
Tiger pelts are sold for between $500 and $600 and bones ate sold for about $200 a kilogram. One Cambodian shopkeeper told Reuters, "If you want one or two skins you can have them immediately, but if you want four or five you'll have to wait." Sometimes tigers get their revenge. In 1993, three soldiers were horribly mutilated when they tried to kill a tiger.
Endangered Tigers in India and Nepal
India is home to more than half of the world's estimated 3,200 tigers. Despite dozens of tiger reserves in place, their numbers have sunk from an estimated 5,000-7,000 in the 1990s, when their habitat was more than twice as large.
Early in the 20th century, when there wear about 40,000 tigers in India. No one thought of saving the animals; they were considered dangerous pests. By 1972 trophy hunting and loss of habitat had reduced the numbers of tigers to 2,000. Between 2,000 and 3,000 tigers are thought to remain in India today, perhaps 60 percent of the world's total. Despite the country's establishment of 21 reserves, the remaining tigers are going fast. India's tiger reserves are scattered throughout the country.
The Los Angeles Times reported: “Various Indian federal and state forestry officials claimed until a few years ago, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that India had 5,000 tigers. A more realistic census in 2010 put the figure around 1,706. Although that's a jump from the estimated 1,411 in 2008, it's a fraction of the 45,000 or so from a century ago. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Time, August 13, 2012]
Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India Program, told the New York Times in 2006: The government claims that there are over 3,000. But that figure is based on a flawed counting method that officials developed for themselves. There are preservation groups who claim the number is more like 1,000. It's probably not that low. At the Wildlife Conservation Society, we won't guess. What we will say, based on scientific data, is that there are only about 115,000 square miles of forest still left in the country where tigers can thrive and breed. In most of that territory, there's been a tremendous tiger decline due to habitat degradation by local people and development activities like mines, dams and roads, and the poaching of tiger prey. We believe that if India is to have tigers, these wildlife reserves must be rigorously protected. [Source: Claudia Dreifus, New York Times, August 16, 2005]
AFP reported in There are a little over 100 adult tigers in Nepal. The animals once roamed the country's southern plains in large numbers but have been depleted by poaching and the destruction of their habitat. A WWF survey carried out in 2008 found just 121 adult tigers of breeding age in the country. Experts say poverty and political instability in Nepal have created ideal conditions for poachers who kill the animals for their skin, meat and bones, which are highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine. Wildlife experts say a single tiger skin is traded for around $1,000 in Nepalese markets but at least $10,000 internationally. [Source: Frankie Taggart, AFP, October 21, 2011]
India Scrambles to Save Tigers from Deadly Dog Virus
Katy Daigle of Associated Press wrote: “India is scrambling to protect its beleaguered tiger population after several big cats tested positive for a virus common among dogs but deadly to other carnivores, experts said. In the last year, canine distemper virus has killed at least four tigers and several other animals across northern and eastern India, according to Rajesh Gopal of the government's National Tiger Conservation Authority. [Source: Katy Daigle, Associated Press, January 13, 2014]
“The revelation is bad news for wild tigers — already endangered by rampant poaching and shrinking habitat as India undergoes breakneck development to accommodate the staggering growth of its 1.2 billion people. That same economic development and population growth means more people — and more dogs — are coming even closer to wildlife. India will now test every tiger carcass it finds for the virus, Gopal said, while authorities also consider a massive campaign to vaccinate dogs against canine distemper. "We cannot vaccinate every dog, of course. But even 50 percent of dogs in the zones around sanctuaries would help," Gopal said. He did not give details of the plans being considered. There is no vaccine for big cats.
“The cases being found across such a huge swath of India, however, suggests the disease could already be running in the wild, experts said, though they agree much more research is needed. "These are very disturbing finds," said Dr. A.K. Sharma, head scientist at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, which performed the canine distemper lab tests. "The cases were quite distant from each other, and the latest was an area where there are no dogs. So it appears the virus is spreading."
“Since two cubs tested positive in a zoo in the Bihar state capital of Patna a year ago, Sharma and his colleagues have found at least four more cases — a red panda in the northeast state of Manipur, a wild tiger in West Bengal, a zoo lion in Darjeeling and last month a wild tiger in the Dudhwa Tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh. "In the last case, forest guards said they saw the animal in a confused state before it died," he said. Experts said there are likely more undetected cases, since testing for canine distemper has not been routine and few animals that die in the wild are ever found.
“Canine distemper virus, a close relative of measles, is associated mostly with domestic dogs though it has infected — and ravaged — other carnivore populations. It brought the U.S. black-footed ferret to the brink of extinction in the late 1970s. In Tanzania in 1994, an epidemic likely introduced by tourists' dogs wiped out at least a third of the 3,000-strong African lion population in Serengeti National Park. The possibility of a disease like canine distemper hitting the world's last population of wild Asiatic lions was a major consideration in last year's Indian Supreme Court's decision ordering Gujarat state to safeguard the species by transferring some lions to a second, faraway sanctuary.
“While dogs can often recover from the disease, other animals including tigers, lions and leopards suffer fever, seizures and delirium before they die. There is no known cure. Some experts said it was pointless to try to limit the disease, given how closely millions of Indians live alongside wildlife. Instead, the country should focus on other, proven threats like poaching, prey loss to hunting and human encroachment into forests. "Thinking we can control this is totally unrealistic. We have to live with it now, and assess whether it's really serious yet," said Ullas Karanth, the Bangalore-based Asian science director of Wildlife Conservation Society. "What South Africa has done, quarantining huge areas and creating disease-free spaces in the wild, is not feasible here."
"This is a serious situation," said Thopsie Gopal, who has no relation to Rajesh Gopal. "Maybe tigers are eating infected dogs, or maybe it is spreading in the wild." He suggested India could resume its policy of vaccinating cattle against rinderpest, another virus similar to canine distemper. Increasing antibodies against rinderpest in the environment could help boost defenses against canine distemper, he said. "It might be too late, but might be worth trying," he said. Indian experts also want to search living tigers for natural antibodies that could be used in creating a vaccine. But there are obvious challenges in capturing the reclusive and dangerous nighttime predators for blood tests. "It would take a lot of funding and a lot of manpower," Sharma said. "We'll see if the government agrees."
Thailand Dam Project Threatens Tigers
Nirmal Ghosh wrote in The Straits Times, “Thailand's pledge to double the number of endangered wild tigers in the country's jungles by 2022 will be in jeopardy if a new dam at a national park is built, environmental organizations have warned. The dam on the Mae Wong river, at the national park of the same name in Nakhon Sawan province, north-west of Bangkok, forms part of the government's flood management plan. The project reportedly will help irrigate up to 480 square kilometers of farmland. However, to do that, it will destroy around 1,760 hectares of low-lying forest - the best habitat for wildlife, including the tiger. The accompanying access roads could also open up the forest further to illegal activity. [Source: Nirmal Ghosh, The Straits Times, May 04 2012]
“The park is part of Thailand's Western Forest Complex, the largest system of protected areas in mainland Southeast Asia. In all, it covers 17 protected areas, totalling 18,000 square kilometers and overlapping the border with Myanmar. It is seen as the only habitat in Southeast Asia capable of supporting a large number of tigers on a sustainable basis if it is adequately protected. "The entire Western Forest Complex is Thailand's very last stronghold for many globally endangered and vulnerable species," Anak wrote in the Post.
“Thailand's Cabinet approved the THB 13 billion dam project on April 10. So far, no assessment of the environmental impact has been carried out. The dam was first mooted 20 years ago, but the project did not gain traction for a long time. In 2002, the National Environment Board turned it down. Thailand's Royal Irrigation Department is expected to complete a health and environmental impact assessment study for the project in July, 2012.
Conservationists Excited by Tiger Population Rise in Nepal
In July 2013, Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: “The number of wild Royal Bengal tigers in Nepal has increased to 198, a 63.6 percent rise in five years, a government survey of the big cats showed. The findings are crucial for the protection of endangered tigers facing the threat of extinction from poachers for the lucrative trade in their parts, encroachment of habitat by villagers due to the rise in human settlements and loss of prey. [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, July 31, 2013]
Conflicts between people and wild animals are frequent in Nepal, which has pledged to double the population of tigers by the year 2022 from an estimated 2010 level of 125. "This is very encouraging," said Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with Nepal's National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department, adding that the Himalayan nation was on target to achieve its goal ahead of the deadline. "But the increased numbers have also added to our responsibilities and challenges for the conservation of tigers," Dhakal told Reuters after releasing the findings of the four-month survey.
The study was supported by the conservation group WWF and the United States. Conservation experts credit the increase to effective policing of national parks, stronger anti-poaching drives and better management of tiger habitats in Nepal, where forests cover 29 percent of the land. Nepal needs to carefully protect the habitat and animals on which tigers prey so the big cats have enough space to roam and food to eat, experts said.
As the number of tigers have increased over the years, so have incidents of conflict with villagers. Seven people were killed in attacks by tigers around national parks last year compared to four in 2011, park officials said. Villagers are also seeking better protection. "Government is making conservation plans for tigers. But it should also come up with plans to protect people from tigers," Krishna Bhurtel, a local village headman in Chitwan, told Nepali newspaper Nagarik. Chitwan is home to more than 100 tigers. Wildlife authorities captured a tiger in Chitwan after it killed two people, including a villager who was pulled from his bed in May.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014