Touted Rise in Tiger Populations May Be More Fiction Than Fact

Some scientists are questioning a recent spate of hopeful news about global tiger numbers.
(Photo: Jim Cook/Getty Images)
Apr 15, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Lately, media have been frothy with happy talk about an unexpected increase in populations of the endangered tiger, with the global count suddenly up from 3,200 to 3,890. The World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum reported the result based on a tally of recent counts by government agencies and conservation groups.

The announcement predictably produced headlines that tiger populations were on the rise for the first time in 100 years. Even National Geographic and the BBC sang along, in tune: “Tiger Numbers Rise for First Time in a Century.”

There was only one problem: The news was a publicity-friendly confection of nonsense and wishful thinking, unsupported by any published science.

Instead, the timing of the announcement had everything to do with politics: It came the day before the scheduled opening of the Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi, bringing together scientists and political leaders from 13 nations.

That group has committed its member nations to the daunting (and arguably unrealistic) goal of doubling the population of tigers between 2010 and 2022. With half that time elapsed, WWF Senior Vice President Ginette Hemley apparently meant to kick things off with some good news and a key takeaway message for the conference attendees. “When you have high-level political commitments, it can make all the difference,” she said. “When you have well-protected habitat and you control the poaching, tigers will recover. That’s a pretty simple formula. We know it works.”

At various points, Hemley carefully attributed the results to better counting methods, not to an actual increase in tiger numbers. “The tools we are using now are more precise than they were six years ago,” she told The New York Times. But that nuance got lost along the way, as it was perhaps intended to do. The Times headline: “Number of Tigers in the Wild Is Rising, Wildlife Groups Say.”

WWF did not respond to a request to interview Hemley—a policy person who spends most of her time in Washington, D.C. So for a reality check, I phoned a tiger biologist: John Goodrich, senior tiger program director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.

Two conservation groups released the tiger population report, he said, but “there aren’t really any scientists connected with it, and we don’t know the sources of the data that they’re basing it on—not yet, and I doubt we will.”

Goodrich called the announcement “misleading,” and he isn’t alone in the sentiment. In a joint statement, Wildlife Conservation Society directors K. Ullas Karanth and Dale Miquelle and University of Oxford zoologist Arjun Gopalaswamy said the surveys are leading to “an illusion of success.”

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“Glossing over serious methodological flaws, or weak and incomplete data to generate feel-good ‘news’ is a disservice to conservation," they stated, "because tigers now occupy only 7 percent of their historic range.”

Tiger numbers suffer from “a lot of hype,” Goodrich said. That’s partly because tigers often live in some of the most remote and difficult terrain in the world. An expedition I participated in found tiger pugmarks at 10,000 feet in the Himalayas of Bhutan, at a time when outside biologists refused to believe Bhutanese reports of high-country tigers.

The Bhutanese later proved it with camera-trap images from 13,450 feet.

Goodrich said the 1999 estimate of a worldwide population of 5,000 to 7,000 tigers was “a guesstimate,” and the 2010 count of 3,200 was just a guess.

“Now our data are much better,” he said, mainly due to improvements in tiger monitoring, camera trapping, and the complex algorithms for inferring total populations from the reliable data. “But there are still only two countries that have comprehensive surveys of tiger habitat: Nepal and Bhutan,” Goodrich said.

Despite his concerns with the WWF report, Goodrich acknowledged some good news, including increases in tiger populations in the Western Ghats mountain range in India, around Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and at the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand.

There is one statistic Goodrich said really should have dominated the headlines: Since 2010, tiger range—as estimated by scientists—has decreased 40 percent. That is, when they went out and looked carefully at designated tiger habitat, they found almost half the time that no tigers lived there. That’s largely because poaching has simply eliminated tigers from some habitats. (A study early this month found that there’s enough empty habitat left to meet the goal of doubling tiger populations by 2022, if governments could get serious about stopping poaching.)

Vietnam is down from a reported 100 tigers at the turn of the century to just five today, and the Ho Chi Minh City–based Thanh Nien News responded to the WWF announcement by noting with alarm that “some traffickers have taken advantage of the Internet, blatantly advertising tiger parts on Facebook.”

Habitat destruction also continues unabated. The host of the New Delhi conference that wrapped up Thursday was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most pro-development, anti-nature prime minister in India’s recent history. He gives lip service to tiger conservation—but with his strong backing, India appears to be going ahead with a road-widening project between the Pench and Kanha Tiger Reserves in central India—the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. That decision goes against the conclusion by a Supreme Court–appointed advisory committee that the project would cause “irreparable damage to a critical wildlife habitat.” Modi’s administration is making such choices everywhere.

So much for happy talk and good publicity. What politicians and conservation activists need to be hearing from the entire world is a loud reminder that continuing on our current course will cause tigers to disappear forever from the wild.