The endangered species gets a dose of good news as officials from 13 Tiger Range Countries gather to discuss future conservation efforts.
The world’s wild tiger population rose by more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2015—the first recorded increase in the big cats’ numbers in more than a century. That’s good news for an endangered species that has long been reeling from habitat loss, poaching, and wildlife trafficking.
The new findings come from surveys led by officials within the 13 nations that make up the tiger’s historical range—an area that stretches across Asia from India to eastern Russia, and south to Malaysia and Indonesia. The new numbers were combined with the best tiger population estimates from the International Union for Conservation of Nature to determine that there were 3,890 tigers alive and well in 2015, compared with 3,200 tigers recorded in 2010.
Tiger populations have increased in four countries, with the largest rise coming in India, where official surveys counted 2,226 tigers in 2014 compared with 1,776 in 2011. Other countries that found more tigers roaming within their borders included Russia, Nepal, and Bhutan—all of which completed national-level surveys in 2015.
There are 97 percent fewer tigers today than 100 years ago, mostly owing to poaching, deforestation, urban development, and overall habitat loss.
In 2010—the Year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar—leaders from the 13 countries came up with a goal to double the world’s population of tigers to 6,000 by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.
Increased conservation efforts, more land area surveyed, and improved survey techniques are likely responsible for the uptick in tigers recorded, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
But with 2016 marking the halfway point toward the goal of doubling the world’s tiger total, a 20 percent increase leaves them behind pace. At the current rate, tiger populations would hit 4,680 by 2020—short of the goal.
For Nilanga Jayasinghe, species conservation specialist at the World Wildlife Fund, the updated figures mark a turning point in the effort.
“For the first time, we’re seeing an upward trajectory,” Jayasinghe said. “There are still some areas we have declining populations, and overall we have a long way to go, but we can celebrate this reversing of the downward trend.”
The news comes ahead of the third conference between the Tiger Range Countries, scheduled to start in New Delhi April 12 to discuss ongoing and future tiger conservation strategies.
One of the main topics of discussion will be increasing efforts to curb poaching, which is fueled by the high prices tiger parts fetch in both legal and illegal avenues.
According to the U.K.-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, both captive-bred and wild tigers are still fueling legal and illegal markets in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Nearly all parts of the animals are in high demand: their skins for decorative furniture; their bones to brew “tiger bone wine;” their meat, which is sold as a delicacy; and their teeth and claws, sold as jewelry.
The EIA and 21 other conservation groups are calling for all countries to commit to ending all demand for tiger parts, prohibiting captive breeding, and phasing out legal tiger trade markets.
“It is time for Tiger Range Countries to unite in a commitment to end tiger farming and to end all domestic and international trade in parts and derivatives of tigers from captive facilities,” EIA wrote on its website.
Nations with tigers also have to deal with a tiger-human crowding problem. As Asia’s human population has boomed, people have logged the tiger’s forest home, pushing the species onto ever-shrinking patches of habitat. The lack of land for tigers to hunt for food has ratcheted up human-tiger conflicts, as the cats end up preying on encroaching farmer’s livestock.
“We’ve got to make sure that the source populations—where they are established and breeding—have habitat that younger tigers can expand into, and corridors they can use to connect populations and expand the gene pool,” Jayasinghe said. “That’s the next step: getting these countries on board with conserving and protecting potential tiger habitat that they can expand into, and increase the overall population.”