Three Thousand Wild Tigers

Talking Tigers: Part 1 of a 12-part series 

When I began intensive tiger research for our Tigers Forever book project two years back, I was shocked to learn, through a series of casual conversations, that almost no one is aware of the cat’s precarious state. When I tell people that just 3,200 tigers are left in the wild, their mouths drop. And that was last year: In discussions with some of the world’s top tiger experts over the last month, I’ve learned that the current number now may hover closer to 3,000. There are about that many captive tigers in Texas. Most of those are privately owned.

Tigers, the largest of the world’s cats, are the heart and soul of Asia’s jungles, grasslands, and deserts. They’re so adaptable that they even thrive in the frigid Himalayan foothills and the mangrove water-world of the Indian/Bangladeshi Sunderbans—and they are the dominant predator, literally the kings and queens, of every ecosystem they inhabit. But Asia’s exploding human population is eating away their forest home, and both tigers and their prey have been caught in the crosshairs, killed in vast numbers by trophy hunters and more recently, by poachers.

Map of historic and current tiger habitat
Most wild tigers now survive only in protected areas. The current challenge is how big cats and humans can share the landscape in ways that allow tigers safe passage between reserves to hunt and breed, while preventing deadly contact with people. (Map courtesy of Panthera)

In just 100 years’ time, we humans have engineered their grand-scale demise.  A century ago, more than 100,000 tigers roamed across 30 nations, from Turkey eastward to Siberia, throughout Southeast Asia down to the tip of Indonesia. Today, they hang on in just 13 countries; though they’re the national animal of six nations, they’ve vanished from two of them, North and South Korea. They’ve disappeared from 93 percent of their former range; just 42  “source sites” are known, areas that conservationists say have the potential to seed tiger recovery.These sites are scattered across the continent. Half of all our wild tigers live in India.

Recently, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute analyzed the genetic vigor of tigers in a string of reserves across central India, where I just spent three weeks. One of them, Pench Tiger Reserve, is a 100-square-mile (257-square-kilometer) patch that looks like an illustration from The Jungle Book: groves of towering bamboo, big-leafed teak trees and “strangler fig” banyans filled with acrobatic langur monkeys. But Pench is essentially a leafy island. It’s hard to believe that a century ago, this was mostly unbroken forest. Today it, (like many parks, especially in India) is being squeezed by  an encroaching, teeming sea of humanity. These parks are bordered by a patchwork of rice paddies, crop fields, hemmed in by villages, cities, and all sorts of development. The surrounding land is segmented by roads, railways, scarred by massive mines and other barriers that render it dangerous and virtually impassable for these wide-ranging predators.

Researchers found that in Pench and other reserves that lacked corridors connecting them to other forests, tigers were far more inbred. Those cats had 47 to 70 percent less gene flow, and as we know from the medical history of European royalty, inbreeding does not create the healthiest bloodlines.

Tigers have lived in these lands for millennia; like all modern cats, they originated in Southeast Asia. The great roaring cats, Panthera were the first to branch off the cat family tree 10.8 million years ago. It’s a group that includes tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards.

The earliest tiger fossils are two million years old. That ancient ancestor eventually evolved into nine subspecies as they slowly adapted to Asia’s various landscapes, prey, and climate. Three of the nine blinked into extinction over the last 80 years. The last known Bali tiger died out during the 1930s; the Javan and Caspian tiger both disappeared in the 1970s. Six subspecies remain: the Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, Sumatran, Amur (Siberian)—and the South-China, which is gone from the wild, existing only in captivity. All are endangered. In 1996, the Sumatran tiger was reclassified as critically endangered, one step from oblivion.

A Sumatran tiger peers at a camera trap it triggered while hunting in the early morning in the forests of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. (Photograph by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

Okay, so why don’t we all know that tigers are slipping towards the edge? Part of the reason might be because we see them all the time in zoos and at the circus. But captive tigers don’t count: they’re gone from the wild gene pool and even if they could be released, they wouldn’t know how to hunt or survive outside of an enclosure and their familiarity with people would make them dangerous. And it’s nearly impossible to move a new individual into a place where tigers live. These cats are incredibly territorial and will fight to the death over their carefully delineated home territory.

Another big reason that many of us don’t realize there are so few tigers is that for the last 40 years or so, conservation organizations have loudly claimed that they’re saving them. It’s a way to keep donations rolling in. But the fact is, only a few of them are making headway in a few locations. Billions of dollars have been fundraised and spent, yet tiger numbers continue to plummet.

To save the tiger, protecting those 42 precious source sites is critical. In 2010, fully protecting those sites was estimated at a cost of $82 million a year.

Though tigers are in the emergency room, they’re a resilient species. They were nearly annihilated 73,000 years ago when a massive volcanic eruption at Sumatra’s Lake Toba plunged the planet into volcanic winter, wiping out scores of Asian mammals. The species rebounded from just a few individuals to repopulate Asia.

The good news: A female can birth 15 cubs in her lifetime, and there’s still enough habitat to support healthy populations.  If both the cats and their prey are given boots-on-the-ground protection, there’s hope, they’ll bounce back. But it will take committed, targeted action and creative strategies.

Kaziranga National Park's 450 guards frequently end up in shootouts with heavily-armed poachers
Here, guards in India’s Kaziranga National Park patrol for poachers. It’s the only reserve in India where guards are allowed to carry guns. (Photograph by Steve Winter/National Geographic)

In the words of renowned field biologist George Schaller, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories. It’s a never-ending process that each of us must take part in.”

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Over the next weeks, Sharon will dig into the rich cultural history surrounding this majestic cat—why they’ve been both feared and revered throughout human history—and will explore both the threats that face them and the extraordinary efforts to save them.

Follow Sharon Guynup on Twitter: @sguynup

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Sharon is a National Geographic Explorer. Her work focuses on environmental issues that impact wildlife, ecosystems, and human health--with a particular focus on wildlife trafficking and environmental crime. She has written widely on big cats, pangolins, rhinos and other endangered species and has written features, essays, blogs and commentary National Geographic, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Scientific American and other outlets. Her January 2016 story for National Geographic helped close down the Thai Tiger Temple--a combination monastery and tiger tourism operation that is now under investigation for black market wildlife trade. She's worked with jaguar researchers in the Brazilian Panatanal, with park guards in India's Kaziranga National Park (the last outpost for Indian one-horned rhinos) and in tiger reserves across the subcontinent. Sharon has also written and photographed from the remote heart of Eastern Siberia (where grizzlies still thrive), Turkey’s Eastern Anatolian villages, has traveled by boat to isolated river towns along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, driven across Cuba, explored African savannas and Latin American jungles and has spent considerable time beneath the sea in various oceans. Her book, "Tigers Forever: Saving the World's Most Endangered Big Cat" is a collaboration with National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, published in 2013 by National Geographic Books. In 2006, she launched the "State of the Wild: A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands and Oceans" book series for the Wildlife Conservation Society, published by Island Press. She has co-produced short videos for National Geographic, including "Special Investigation: Famous Tiger Temple Accused of Supplying Black Market" and "Battling India's Illegal Tiger Trade." Sharon lived in Turkey for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship, is a scuba diver, and worked as a photojournalist for some years before earning her Masters degree in Journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, where she has also taught as adjunct assistant professor. Sharon is currently a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.