clock menu more-arrow no yes

Wild tiger populations show signs of rebounding for the first time in a century

Sumatran tiger says: Don't call it a comeback. Well, maybe a little comeback.
(DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Hey, look, some (potentially) good environmental news: After decades of decline, wild tiger populations appear to be slowly rebounding. Efforts to crack down on poaching and protect wildlife reserves in places like India, Russia, Nepal, and Bhutan might finally be paying off — though there's still a long, long way to go.

Tigers are notoriously hard to track, as they often hide out in dense jungles and snowy mountains. Biologists usually have to set up camera traps to count them. But based on new data from national surveys, the WWF and the Global Tiger Forum estimate there are now 3,890 tigers in the wild, up from roughly 3,200 in 2010.

Another conservation group, Panthera, was much more cautious about the news, noting that the uptick in numbers might merely be an artifact of improved monitoring. What's more, they note, wild tiger populations are still far, far below their historic peak and remain in serious danger of extinction. So don't celebrate just yet.

A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed the globe, ranging from Turkey and the Caucasus to eastern Siberia and Indonesia. But decades of logging, development, and poaching have whittled the tigers' habitat down to just 13 countries:

(Panthera)

Tigers are a charismatic megafauna, so the prospect of extinction has garnered heaps of attention. And, in recent years, countries have been stepping up their conservation efforts to save what wild tigers remain.

India is an excellent case study. A century ago, some 45,000 tigers wandered the country. By 2006, there were only 1,411 remaining, confined to just a few dozen wildlife reserves and encroached on all sides by development. The tigers often wandered out of the reserves for food, coming into deadly conflict with humans (deadly for both humans and the tigers, that is). And poachers killed dozens of animals each year, spurred on by soaring demand for body parts in places like China, for use in traditional medicine.

So, over the last decade, India's government has bolstered protections, training more forest guards and setting up camera traps to improve monitoring of the tigers. By 2014, the wild population had risen to 2,216. Nepal has seen similar successes, with its population rising 60 percent since 2008.

High five!
A male Tiger called T28 (back to camera) and a female called Machali (right) fighting in Ranthambhore national park in Rajasthan, India (Photo by Aditya Singh / Barcroft India / Getty Images)

That said, it's not all good news. The Indochinese tiger was recently declared "functionally extinct" in Cambodia due to uncontrolled poaching. The government has said it will try to reintroduce the species in Cambodia's eastern Mondulkiri forest reserve, under heavy guard, to see if it can stage a comeback.

And, ultimately, 3,890 tigers worldwide is still paltry. To put that in perspective, there are about 5,000 tigers in private captivity in the US alone. What's more, because many of the wild sub-populations are isolated from each other, conservationists are worried about a lack of gene flow. In India, conservationists have called for corridors that would link many of the existing tiger reserves, to facilitate breeding.

The 13 governments that are home to tiger habitats have set a goal of doubling the wild tiger population by 2020. They're meeting at the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi this week. It's an audacious and difficult goal, but the early returns are at least encouraging.

This post has been updated to include Panthera's response to the WWF/Global Tiger Forum data.

Further reading: Study: We've wiped out half the world's wildlife since 1970

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.