Tigers are having a good year.
The slow but steady rise in the big cat’s estimated population comes as biologists get better at tracking the animal and marks a high point amid a deepening extinction crisis that may see as many as a million plants and animal species disappear worldwide because of habitat loss and climate change.
Tiger researchers, while optimistic, warn that the fierce hunter remains under threat from both poaching and encroachment into its remaining habitat. And nations are struggling to reach their collective goal of doubling the population of wild tigers worldwide between 2010 and 2022, the last two years assigned to the tiger in the Chinese zodiac.
“It’s a fragile success,” said Dale Miquelle, tiger program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “There are still many pressures on tiger populations, and they are disappearing from some areas.”
There are between 3,726 and 5,578 tigers in the wild today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which tracks the status of plants and animals facing extinction. Tens of thousands of tigers once roamed Asia.
One big reason behind the recent jump in tiger estimates: Scientists have simply gotten better at counting the cats, placing motion-sensing cameras in more spots to identify their territory. Biologists warn that prior estimates of tiger populations are less reliable.
“A lot of us expanded beyond the traditionally known protected areas to other areas, and we’ve suddenly discovered that there are more tigers than we initially started with,” said Abishek Harihar, a population ecologist in India and deputy director of the tiger program at Panthera, a wild cat conservation group. Harihar and Miquelle co-wrote the IUCN’s recent tiger assessment.
But a combination of expanding protected areas and targeting poachers who sell tiger parts for use in traditional medicine has allowed tigers to stabilize or recover in China, India and Thailand.
“In all of those countries, tiger conservation has been a priority at the highest levels of government,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at World Wildlife Fund.
Asia’s most iconic predator is perhaps doing best of all in Nepal, where the estimated population has soared from 121 to 355 since 2009, its government said Friday, after the small Himalayan country committed to restoring habitat and dispatched military units to patrol for poachers.
The grassy lowlands between Nepal and India near the Himalayan foothills — known as the Terai — teem with grazing animals, making it among the most productive potential habitats for the carnivore. Nepal was once home to so many tigers that during a 10-day expedition in 1911, King George V’s hunting party killed 39 tigers (as well as 18 rhinoceros and four bears).
Tigers once roamed from Turkey in the west to the eastern coast of Russia and from frigid forests of Siberia in the north to tropical islands of Indonesia in the south. But a century of hunting both tigers and their prey has restricted their range and decimated their numbers.
By the 1940s, wild tigers vanished from Singapore and Bali. By the 1960s, they were gone for good in Hong Kong and Java. In recent decades, they disappeared from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. And today, they continue to die out in Malaysia.
Tigers remain top cat in less than one-fourteenth of their former habitat.
Both revered and feared across the globe, the tiger is a classic “charismatic megafauna” — a big, regal animal that receives outsize attention and money in the conservation movement. But by protecting tigers, Miquelle said, conservationists end up protecting entire ecosystems on which other animals and people depend.
“When we talk about protecting tigers, you’re really talking about protecting the environment that people also need to survive and live a better life,” he said.
Yet, as tigers rebound, conflicts arise. In India, home to two-thirds of the world’s wild tigers, the big cats killed 383 people between 2010 and 2019, testing the tolerance of locals for living among them. A protest erupted in a Nepalese village this June after tiger and leopard attacks.
In a bid to bolster incomes and provide economic incentive for tiger conservation, groups such as the WWF are encouraging residents to open their homes to ecotourists hoping to see the animals.
Further complicating conservation efforts is Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has made it more difficult for researchers to collaborate with Russian counterparts and to attend a major tiger forum in the port city of Vladivostok scheduled for September.
And rising seas fueled by global warming threaten to inundate tiger-filled mangroves in Bangladesh, though climate change may end up expanding the cat’s range in Russia.
Despite the gains, tigers are still officially classified as endangered in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. And countries still are failing to double their numbers.
“We haven’t succeeded in that process,” Miquelle said. “But we do feel that there are more tigers today than there were 12 years ago — that progress is being made.”