“We are losing the tiger.”
I wrote that line almost a decade ago, to open an article charting the decline of Asia’s great cat. Back then, only around 3200 tigers were left in the wild. The species had disappeared from 11 countries it once inhabited and three unique sub-species from Bali, Java, and Central Asia had been lost forever. Their precipitous decline — the result mainly of the tiger’s forested habitat being transformed for human use, combined with massive over-hunting for sport by European colonial elites and Asian aristocracy alike — seemed unstoppable.
That pressure has not waned. Although hunting tigers for fun has been illegal in all range countries since the 1970’s, there are now over 750 million more humans on earth than a decade ago. The three most populous tiger range states — China, India, and Indonesia — have added 113 million alone. More people, whether they live in tiger countries or far from them, means more pressure on the natural landscapes where tigers live.
Combined with that, the demand for dead tigers has blossomed. Like the trophy hunters of old, some people still think it’s classy to own the skins, teeth, and claws of tigers. Even more insidious, expensive tiger bones and virtually all other body parts are valued in much of East Asia for a misguided and messy mix of ‘traditional medicinal’ use and the flaunting of newly realized wealth.
Our species, regrettably, is doing a very efficient job of keeping the pressure on tigers. And, predictably, we are still losing them. In the intervening decade, the species has been lost (or confirmed lost) from a further three countries: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Globally, the tiger is still declining.
But, not everywhere.
In pockets across tiger range, we are starting to see populations head in the opposite direction. Last month’s extraordinary images from Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary offer a compelling glimpse into this trend.
The Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society has transformed Huai Kha Khaeng (HKK) into a tiger stronghold.
Where poachers once operated with relative impunity, the DNP has rolled out a massive intensification of high-quality patrolling across the protected area. Poaching has become difficult, with a high chance of being caught and convicted, just as it should be in a wildlife sanctuary. As the blanket of protection has spread over the landscape, tigers and their main prey species, banteng, sambar and wild pig, have rebounded.
Indeed, tigers are now doing so well in HKK that they are starting to populate the surrounding landscape. The sanctuary is part of the Western Forest Complex, Southeast Asia’s largest remaining block of forest at around 18,000 square kilometers. HKK is one of 17 contiguous, protected areas in the complex, and tigers born in HKK are now being photographed as adults in camera-traps in adjacent protected areas, and even across the international border in Myanmar.
It is a very encouraging illustration of WCS’s ‘source site’ approach to conserving tigers, in which maximum effort is focused on protecting the remaining, breeding tiger populations from poaching until they recover and are able to start repopulating the surrounding, de-populated forest.
HKK is a particularly successful example but it is not alone. We are now seeing similar trends emerge in many of the remaining tiger range states. Wherever there has been a dedicated commitment from governments to protecting tigers and their prey from poaching, tigers have started the long process of recovering.
We are, of course, still an awfully long way from declaring victory. Recovery does not happen overnight; the Thai DNP and WCS’s efforts in HKK go back decades and it will need to be sustained for as long as there are people willing to pay good money for dead tigers and wild meat. And, excellent protection is also not the sole ingredient in bringing the species back.
Disrupting the criminal networks that trade illegally in wildlife, tackling the demand for tiger body parts in consumer societies, and ensuring that people living close to tigers do not have a reason to kill them are also essential. But I am convinced that keeping the pressure on the poachers is the most important thing we must do, now. When we get that right, we see tigers start to come back.
Tigers are certainly still being lost, with some populations on the brink of local extinction. However, I no longer think that is inevitable for the species as a whole. Huai Kha Khaeng’s tigers show us what the species is capable of when we take the pressure off. If we can continue to do that, in as many tiger source sites as possible, we will save Asia’s great cat.
Dr. Luke Hunter is Executive Director for the Big Cats Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).