Tigers are amongst the most spectacular of the exquisite big cats. There is no place where their mention is unheard of. From legends to myths, art to literature and from poetry to religious symbolism tigers have always found their place within the expanse of human perception.
Their brawny frame, marvellous symmetry and striking black stripes elude the burning gaze, alert and vigilant at all times. Utterly magnificent as they are, they have also gathered mixed feelings amongst the many people who have crossed paths with them. Poachers and illegal wildlife traders see them as a commodity for quick money, while livestock owners resent them for their occasional depredation of domestic animals. Stories of man-eating tigers send chills down your spine and make you wish for another Jim Corbett to obliterate the beasts.
On the other hand, Alan Rabinowitz’s “Life in the valley of death: the fight to save tigers in a land of guns, gold, and greed” unravels a moving account of his painstaking perseverance to save the remaining tigers of Myanmar threatened by rampant poaching and gold prospectors. Rabinowitz’s dedication and tenacity to save the big cats where everything from landscapes to the political environment was hostile and difficult is a touching tale of courage, diligence and wholeheartedness.
A century ago tigers were found in a wide range of habitats beyond the radius of their current distribution. Over 100,000 wild tigers were estimated to exist in the early 1900s. The number dwindled to a record low of 3,200 in 2010.
Alarmed by the declining population, leaders of 13 tiger range countries (Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Russia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Laos) met in St. Petersburg, Russia in November 2010 for an international tiger conservation forum held from 21-24 of the month. The threat to tigers was recognized as clear and imminent, and immediate action to save them from extinction in the wild was critical.
In the meeting, they expressed a written commitment to double the wild tiger population (Tx2) by the next lunar year of the Tiger, 2022. The leaders endorsed the Global Tiger Recovery Program, an action plan to strengthen reserves, a crackdown on poachers and provide financial incentives to maintain a thriving tiger population.
The Tx2 approach aims to double the number of wild tigers rather than just protecting them in each of the tiger range countries. It looks at not only saving tigers but also protecting landscapes, source sites and corridors. The initiative encourages transboundary collaboration between countries for tiger conservation and for the first time all tiger range countries came together to collaborate and work in conjunction with a common goal of protecting tigers in the wild.
Ten years hence, on July 29th 2020, WWF reported a tiger population increase in five tiger range countries. In India, the estimate of wild tigers more than doubled between 2006 and 2018. In Nepal, the tiger population of Bardia National Park alone increased five-fold in 2018. In China, evidence of breeding Amur tigers was found for the first time in 10 years and in Russia, the population of Amur tigers increased by 15% within a decade. In Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park, tigers more than doubled from 2010 to 2018. In less than ten years, tiger numbers in the Royal Manas National Park grew from 10 to 22 tigers.
The tenth anniversary of the Tx2 goal was marked by celebrating the sites that have achieved conservation excellence in protecting tigers. Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park and Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park were awarded the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CAITS) Accreditation Certificate in 2019. The other three accredited sites were Lansdowne Forest Division in Uttarakhand in India, Chitwan National Park in Nepal and Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve in Russia. Under the accreditation system of CAITS, tiger conservation areas provide evidence under 7 pillars and 17 elements of critical management activity to demonstrate that they meet a range of criteria for effective conservation management.
Transboundary collaboration between countries for tiger conservation is another success story best exemplified by the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA) along the Indo-Bhutan border created in 2011. With Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park on one side and India’s Manas Tiger Reserve, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site on the other, a healthy population of tigers thrive in this transboundary landscape. A true collaborative spirit, excellent teamwork and shared conservation values amongst foresters, wildlife biologists, civil society organizations and local community support have been the key drivers of this feat. In 2020, the initiative was awarded the first-ever Conservation Excellence Award in transboundary partnership.
Heartening as it may seem, the road to doubling tiger numbers is not devoid of challenges. While success stories invite a sense of elation, looming threats continue to linger. Large-scale habitat destruction and decimation of prey populations are major threats certain to take their toll if we fail to act in time. Historically, hunting for sport caused much decline in tiger populations, but today poaching and illegal trade in tiger body parts is a bigger threat that could drive wild tigers to extinction. Over and above that, human-tiger conflict is another threat that cannot be disregarded. As tigers lose their habitat and prey species, they attack domestic animals, triggering retaliatory killing by angry villagers.
The road to Tx2 was never perceived to be a smooth sail. A great many challenges and complex issues confronting the initiative are wide and clear. Amongst the many threats lurking on wild tigers, the most treacherous ones are poaching and the illegal trade of body parts.
This highly organized wildlife crime is interwoven with sophisticated networks throughout the entire supply chain so much so that strengthening law enforcement alone will only assure partial success. Bringing this prevalent and devastating criminal act to an end would require a well-coordinated global response.
Law enforcement capacity, intelligence sharing and transnational cooperation are vital, and above all unwavering commitment from leaders to fight wildlife crime with a singular objective of saving tigers in the wild. The St. Petersburg international tiger conservation forum was aimed at bringing this commitment from leaders of the 13 tiger range countries. The recent launch of the Asia-Pacific Counter-Illegal Wildlife Trade Hub will surely heighten this effort and go a long way in combating wildlife crime in this part of the world.
With the next lunar Tiger year less than a year away, it is time to reflect on how close we are to achieving the goal. It would be a historic moment if the ambitious goal set by the 13 tiger range countries at St. Petersburg is fulfilled. Even otherwise, the many success stories that have emerged since the St. Petersburg pledge would be a good enough reason to drink a toast to the global effort towards tiger conservation.
In any case, it is evident that wild tigers are under severe threat and our concerted effort must continue to enable the amazing big cats to thrive in their natural habitats around the world.
Tandin Wangdi, Program Specialist, WWF-Bhutan