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Tigers not out of the woods yet

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Fur flew following last week’s announcement that tiger numbers were up for the first time in a century as many experts questioned the data issued by WWF and GTF. These articles provide a balanced view of the current issues facing wild tigers and explain why, we mustn’t take our eye off the ball when it comes to protecting the world’s most iconic big cat.

Explained: What tiger numbers really say

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | Updated: April 19, 2016 8:04 am

No, the tiger is not out of the woods. If numbers presented ahead of last week’s global tiger meet in New Delhi showed minor gains due to better counting methods, they also revealed massive losses.

On April 11, a day before ministers of 13 tiger range countries assembled in New Delhi to pledge support for the big cat, a statement by the WWF-International and Global Tiger Forum claimed that the global tiger count was on the rise for the first time in a century. The global media went into a tizzy with the press release, and the delegates at the tiger gala looked suitably proud.

The claim is little more than a mockery of both science and sensibility. It is like concluding that the number of stars in the sky has gone up just because the invention of better telescopes has led to the discovery of faraway, hitherto invisible, celestial bodies.

Better enumeration methods through refined camera trapping and DNA analysis, etc. now increasingly account for animals that were either missed or not identified as separate individuals previously. Yet, given that the elusive tiger’s habitat includes some of the most remote and hostile terrain on earth, the truth is that we simply do not know — and may never know — exactly how many tigers there are in the wild.

The new global figure of 3,890 is an aggregate of what each tiger country has claimed as its tiger population. It has no benchmark for accuracy, as different countries use different counting methods, ranging from refined extrapolation based on sophisticated camera trapping to rudimentary spoor (pug mark tracks, droppings, even scent) surveys. In fact, even the 2010 global tiger population of 3,200, against which the current figure of 3,890 is being compared to claim again, was only a guesstimate (See chart).

At different points and going by different ‘authoritative’ sources, the tiger population during 2009-11 could have been anything between 3,000 and 4,000. Somehow, the global consensus was to settle for 3,200, with a goal to double the number by 2022. Halfway to the deadline, some ‘encouraging’ data was perhaps in order. The claim has already drawn flak from a number of tiger scientists, including some who were not invited to last week’s jamboree. While it is easy to attack the claim on numbers, some have questioned the feasibility of doubling the world’s tiger population by 2022, the goal of the Global Tiger Recovery Programme (GTRP), built on the foundation of all 13 National Tiger Recovery Priorities (NTRPs).

GTRP had itself modified its ambitious target and eventually settled for a 60% increase — from 3,643 to 5,870 — by 2022. Though a tall order, achieving the goal is not a theoretical impossibility. A landmark 2010 study had identified 42 ‘source’ forests that contain almost 70% of all remaining wild tigers. The remaining populations are found in fringe habitats — ‘sink’ forests — that are typically fragmented and unsafe for the big cat. The 2010 study went on to say: “Even source sites, however, have depressed tiger populations. Only five, all of which are in India, maintain tiger populations close (>80%) to their estimated carrying capacity. Thus, the recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70% increase in the world’s tiger population.” However, some of the authors of that study have now cautioned that doubling of the world’s tigers in 10 years was not a realistic proposition because 70%-90% of tigers were in ‘source’ populations with slow growth, and it was unlikely that the ‘sink’ populations would multiply rapidly. In fact, few were ever hopeful of meeting the target of the ‘TX2: Double Wild Tigers’ programme.

Likewise, the celebratory claim about a global rise in numbers for the first time in a century deserved no more than a chuckling dismissal. But for the timing. It came a day ahead of the Third Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, pledged support for conservation. It also came at a time when India’s forests and its 2,000-odd surviving tigers are faced with an unprecedented development spree under a government committed to rapid single-window clearance for destroying forest land. And at a time when successive governments at the Centre and in the states have succeeded in getting institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority to dilute their stand so that national highways can trifurcate the forests of central India without having to undertake adequate mitigation measures necessary for the tiger to have its right of way. Since 2010, tigers may or may not have increased in numbers across the world. But they have certainly disappeared from 40% of the forests they roamed until 10 years ago. For all practical purposes, they are extinct in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and China. In India, the tiger habitat has shrunk by more than 25% in the last decade. This is certainly not the time for an orchestrated ‘All is well’ chant. And that is why this toast is in rather poor taste.

Tigers not out of the woods yet

Nirmal Ghosh – Indochina Bureau Chief

A high-profile international conference on tiger conservation, opened by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, concluded in New Delhi last week calling for new impetus to protect the tiger, even as the international media lauded a rise in tiger numbers.

There were 3,200 tigers in 2010 and 3,890 today.

A little sober reflection is in order, though. Tiger numbers are indeed higher, but this time around the counting methodology was more rigorous and more areas were covered than in 2010. They are also not quite a gold standard; four prominent tiger biologists from three prominent scientific and conservation organisations on Saturday (April 16), in a “statement of concern”, questioned the methodology and essentially urged caution.

Going by the number released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), actual numbers of tigers may indeed have risen. However, it is probably more accurate to say there are more tigers in the wild than previously estimated.

That is still of course good news – but only in some countries. India has more tigers than any other country, but this doesn’t mean tigers are out of the woods even in India, not to speak of mainland South-east Asia.

The fact that tigers have in the same space of time lost a huge chunk of their historic range in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – where they are now functionally extinct – has been buried in the media coverage.

The fact that there are some 7,000 tigers in “farms” across China and Indochina, which leak tiger parts into the market, was also not mentioned in the New Delhi declaration. These farms create a laundering opportunity for tigers killed in the wild.

And left out of the New Delhi resolution too was a controversial plan to repopulate Cambodia’s forests with tigers from India.

In a post-conference statement, 24 non-government organisations, both Indian and international, said conservation successes could only occur in countries “with strong laws and where wild tigers are valued for their role in the ecosystem”.

These would not happen in countries “where tiger farming exists and they are valued only as a commodity”.

“The (New Delhi) resolution… stopped short of addressing the supply of tiger parts and derivatives from tiger ‘farms’ which feed legal and illegal trade, both domestic and international, and perpetuate demand.”

One does not have to look far for a cynical conclusion about rule of law in mainland South-east Asia. The Tiger Temple near Kanchanaburi in Thailand, a money-spinning tourist attraction whose tigers have been mysteriously multiplying, faces accusations not only of animal abuse but of surreptitious tiger breeding and trading. It has openly defied a government agency armed with court orders requiring it to close down.

And across the Mekong from Chiang Rai province, at the Kings Romans casino complex in Laos, tigers sit in cages, and tiger products are openly sold.

“Tiger skins, meat, teeth, claws, bones and bone products from wild and farmed tigers are still consumed in China and Vietnam and by Chinese consumers in Lao PDR and Myanmar,” says the joint statement of the conservation organisations. ”The trade in tiger parts and products is undertaken by organised criminal networks raising serious concerns about the survival of tigers in the wild.”

The number of facilities breeding and keeping captive tigers help to supply and stimulate the market. ”Laws in China and Lao PDR allow the trade in parts and products of captive tigers, and the licensed domestic trade in the skins of zoo and farm tigers has been well documented in China,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the WWF-championed plan to transfer India’s tigers to Cambodia with a clarion call to “double tigers” has divided experts.

“Once a sourcing agreement has been finalised with India and the preparations are complete in Cambodia (such as the construction of tiger release enclosures and preparation of veterinary facilities), the identified tigers will be tranquillised in India and given thorough health checks before being transported to Cambodia,” the WWF says on its Cambodia website.

Few disagree that it is a good idea to repopulate areas that have lost tigers. But such areas must have a sufficient prey base and be adequately protected.

It is not an accident that tigers have become extinct in Cambodia, and are nearly extinct in Laos and Vietnam. There is a pervasive hunting culture throughout the region, and the tigers are close to the biggest market for tiger parts – China.

In Cambodia, corruption is endemic and the rule of law is weak. Cambodia has had the fastest rate of deforestation in the world. According to one estimate, nearly one third of forest cover lost in Cambodia in 2014 disappeared from inside legally-protected areas.

Cambodia unveiled its Tiger Action Plan this month, which was seen as a significant step. But publishing plans is the easy part. Cambodia could not protect its tigers when it had them.

Conservationists say there must be significant guaranteed protection and obvious political will before the tigers are taken from the wild in India and sent to Cambodia. The process should be transparent, and there should be independent monitoring of progress.

India-based wildlife biologist Raghu Chundawat, speaking to Livemint news website last week, said: “It is a great idea; we want tigers in all range countries but there are a few considerations. Obvious ones are about Cambodia’s ability and preparedness.”

Unsurprisingly the budgets are considerable. It is estimated that eight tigers will be required for the exercise, which will cost between US$20 million (S$27 million) and US$50 million, Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture and WWF-Cambodia announced this month.

There has been talk in private meetings of “conflict tigers”, or tigers that have clashed with people – by killing livestock for instance – on the peripheries of India’s tiger reserves, being eyed for relocation to Cambodia. Dr Thomas Gray, of WWF-Mekong, on Twitter on Saturday insisted that WWF would robustly monitor tiger prey numbers and law enforcement, and if there was any poaching activity there would be no reintroduction.

The stakes are high. Dr Ullas Karanth, a tiger expert with the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) warned this week of the risk of “tragic failure”.

“The idea of translocating captive-bred or wild caught problem tigers from India to Cambodia is bereft of any ecological understanding or even of the Cambodian social context,” Dr Karanth said.

Given the realities of Cambodia, if this scheme goes ahead and pictures of trapped tigers being taken to Cambodia emerge in the Indian media, there will be questions whether it is not more feasible to repopulate areas with sub-optimal tiger populations in India – of which there are several – rather than send them to an uncertain fate in Cambodia.

Any mishap, critics say, will trigger a backlash that will sink the project and give tiger conservation a bad name.

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