2010 was a pivotal year in the history of tiger conservation. The iconic big cat was threatened with extinction and only an estimated 3,200 were left in the wild. In the same year tiger range countries came together and committed to double wild tiger populations, a goal known as TX2, by 2022 - the next Year of the Tiger.
2016 marked the first time in over 100 years when the global wild tiger population finally began to increase. But each country’s journey towards TX2 has been different and while tiger populations in some countries are on the rise, tiger populations are still declining across Southeast Asia, reminding us that the progress is fragile.
Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Russia are proving how strong political will, community support and tiger conservation comes together as a recipe for success, as tiger numbers in each country are increasing. But how have they achieved this?
Here are 12 ways tiger range countries have been working to return Asia’s roar over the last 12 years since the Global Tiger Summit in 2010.
1. Connecting tigers across borders
Countries that have seen an increase in tiger numbers are also countries that have worked hard to connect their tiger habitat and allow tigers to move freely and safely across landscapes. In the Russian Far East lies the Land of the Leopard National Park, a protected area and wildlife corridor that secures the main route for tigers moving across the border to China’s Northeast China Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park. Not only have tiger numbers tripled in this national park after a decade of conservation efforts, but the connectivity is enabling tigers to move between both countries - a great achievement.
2. Community based conservation
WWF approaches conservation in Nepal by partnering with local people who depend heavily on forests to become resource managers, beneficiaries, and stewards of the forests in which they live. Nepal’s Khata Corridor has recovered from just 115 hectares to 3,800 hectares thanks to the efforts of the local community. Forest restoration programs here have been complemented by conservation initiatives such as alternative energy programs through biogas, a clean cooking fuel from animal dung which helped replace household need for firewood to reduce pressure on forests. The functional corridor is also home to tigers which are free to roam between the forests of Nepal and India.
3. Tackling the illegal trade of tigers, their parts and products
Combating the illegal tiger trade requires close cooperation of relevant law enforcement agencies within and between countries throughout the trade chain, from the source, through transit, to consumption. WWF and TRAFFIC have worked to facilitate government-led cooperation to break the India–China–Nepal tiger trade chain through improved transboundary wildlife law enforcement and coordination. Nepal's National Wildlife Crime Control Coordination Committee was created to facilitate national multi-agency cooperation across police, customs and intelligence departments, with a similar model to India's National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. This strategic approach has resulted in enhanced regional capacity of protected area personnel, police and other enforcement agencies to counter poaching and trade in tiger parts and products, as well as garnering political support for tiger conservation.
4. Expanding tiger range
While tiger numbers are globally increasing it’s important to acknowledge that their range - the places they are found - has continued to decrease in the last decade. The success of tiger numbers over the last 12 years gives us hope but we must build on this and expand the tiger's range to avoid losing this fragile progress.
As tiger populations have recovered researchers have started seeing them in new areas. In Nepal, during 2020 the high altitude record of a tiger sighting was broken twice in the country - creating excitement about the prospect of tigers claiming new ground. But tigers aren’t just appearing at new heights here, they’re also on the move. The second high altitude sighting in Ilam increased the known tiger range in Nepal east by an incredible 200km. This is credit to the remarkable efforts of the government and communities in tiger landscapes over the last decade.
5. Translocating tigers
There appeared to be little hope for tigers in the west of India’s Rajaji Tiger Reserve until a translocation bringing tigers back to the area launched in 2020. There had been no signs of breeding in the reserve since 2006 and the reintroduction of new tigers aims to change this. The process to translocate tigers requires a long time commitment with extensive planning that also relies on strong political will and social support.
Kazakhstan’s story on the other hand is very different. Tigers became extinct in the country over 70 years ago and a landmark effort is underway to return this iconic big cat to the country by 2025. It will take at least 15 years, and include three key stages: First, habitat preparation which started in 2018 and will last until 2024. Second is the tiger reintroduction phase which will last another nine years, until 2033. And finally monitoring will start in 2025 and continue for at least 15 years. At least 10 tigers will be translocated in this period and with the right conditions the Ile-Balkhash Reserve has the capacity to support 120 tigers.
7. Supporting rangers
The ‘SMART Patrol’ approach is a conservation tool that is used worldwide and supports rangers in their efforts to protect wildlife from poachers and other threats. Data such as wildlife sightings and illegal activity are logged through the SMART app and are then used to help rangers adapt their patrols based on the location of threats. Since 2012, thanks to the help of SMART and other conservation measures, tiger numbers in Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park have doubled — an incredible and hard fought conservation success.
8. Human-tiger coexistence
Tigers live in some of the most densely populated regions of the world and finding effective ways to partner with people living and working in these areas is vital for the long-term recovery of wild tigers. In India’s Pilibhit Tiger Reserve Bagh Mitras - volunteer community response teams - have been trained in how to provide support in human-tiger conflict situations, understanding tiger behaviour, and pugmark identification. These teams were formed in response to an increase in the number of tigers over the past few years which has led to an increase in the number of human wildlife conflict incidents. Their role is to provide support to local authorities and communities in preventing or responding to conflict situations when they arise.
9. Restoring tiger habitat
Thailand is a leader in the Southeast Asia region for effectively managing its tiger sites. WWF-Thailand has partnered with the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation on a project to support the long-term recovery of both tiger and prey populations. Together, they are restoring important grazing areas and setting up artificial salt licks to supply wildlife with vital minerals. Three different tiger prey species have already benefited from these interventions — muntjac, sambar deer, and gaur — an important step towards tiger recovery.
10. Tackling the snaring crisis
WWF-Malaysia launched an ambitious initiative called Project Stampede which drastically increased the number of patrol teams formed by people from the local indigenous communities. Alongside habitat loss and degradation, the increasing use of snares is contributing to an extinction crisis in Southeast Asia. These teams carry out patrols, remove snares and collect data on poaching. While Malaysia’s tiger population continues to decline, these patrol teams have reduced active snares in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex by an incredible 94%. Increased funding and patrol teams are a positive step towards conserving Malaysia’s tigers but more needs to be done to prevent this glimmer of hope from fading.
11. Enabling success with conservation tools
Another piece of innovation that is supporting countries in their efforts to protect tigers is the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS). It sets best practices to manage tiger sites and in 2020 the Indian government adopted CA|TS across the country’s 50 Tiger Reserves, which contain over 60% of the world’s tiger population. The following year the government continued to strengthen India’s contribution to the TX2 goal by announcing 14 of these Tiger Reserves had been CA|TS approved. Being CA|TS approved increases the site profile and shows that effectively managing a site enables tigers to be conserved and where possible numbers to recover.
12. Sustainable finance
Through the Bhutan for Life project the government, supported by WWF-Bhutan, has been securing a network of effectively managed and sustainably financed protected areas across the country. This is protecting tiger movement corridors but also key high-biodiversity and climate resilient habitats, and areas that connect them.
The future of tiger conservation
While there have been a number of major successes for tigers over the last 12 years the work is far from over. In September of this year tiger range countries will once again come together at the second Global Tiger Summit and it will be revealed whether the TX2 goal has been achieved. The Summit is also a time for countries to renew their commitment to protecting tigers as governments set their goals for the next 12 years of tiger conservation.