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Wild tiger numbers are up for the first time in a century

A Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park in India, where tiger populations are rising. (Staffan Widstrand/WWF)
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Finally, some happy news for wild tigers, animals that are endangered because people traffic in their body parts and raze their habitats: The big cats’ population is for the first time bouncing back after a century-long decline.

The World Wildlife Fund says surveys indicate that 3,890 tigers now live in 13 countries across Asia, up from an estimated 3,200 in 2010, when the last wide-scale counts were carried out. Increases were particularly notable in Russia, Nepal, Bhutan and India, which is home to the world’s largest wild tiger population.

India’s ‘huge success’: Tiger population up a whopping 30 percent

WWF attributed the rise to better surveys, which are carried out by tiger-range countries and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as enhanced protection efforts in the six years since those nations pledged to double the population by 2022.

“We’ve watched tigers decline for decades and have dreamed of bending that curve in the other direction,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “This is a big deal.”

There are some caveats, of course. The current tiger population is bigger than it was six years ago, but it’s miniscule compared to the 100,000 believed to have lived in Asia in 1900, and it’s still smaller than the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers that call the United States home.

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Surveys remain poor in some countries, such as Malaysia. Last week, Cambodia announced that tigers were now extinct within its borders. And tigers are still prized, and killed, for the supposed medicinal value of their body parts.

“Every part of the tiger — from whisker to tail — is traded in illegal wildlife markets, feeding a multibillion-dollar criminal network,” WWF said in a statement.

But at the rate of growth over the past six years, the goal of doubling the population by 2022 — the next Chinese year of the tiger — appears within reach.

Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at WWF, told Scientific American that the goal “is going to be a challenge” and may take longer than planned. “I think it’s doable,” she said, “but it’s not going to happen without big mobilizations of additional resources and commitments.”

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