With a global tiger census expected in 2016, Katy Hudson examines the current state of wild tiger populations and the promising results from India’s 2014 survey.

The largest of the big cats, the tiger earned its stripes on earth more than two million years ago. Now critically endangered, this iconic species is hanging onto existence by its claws, with the possibility that all wild tigers may be wiped out in the next ten years. Nine subspecies of this apex predator once roamed the wilds of Bangladesh, Siberia, Iran, Afghanistan, China, India, and South East Asia. With the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tiger now extinct, the remaining six subspecies fight for survival in increasingly isolated and waning populations. Of these extant subspecies, there are approximately 350-400 Amur (Siberian), 600-650 Indochinese, 500 Malayan and 400-500 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. A bleak picture, but all hope is not lost. In 2010, all 13 tiger-range countries committed to the Tx2 project, aiming to double global tiger numbers by 2022 (the next Chinese year of the tiger).

A global tiger census is anticipated in 2016, and preliminary reports from India’s 2014 survey suggest that populations of Bengal tiger (the most common subspecies) are growing, with numbers up from an estimated 1,706 individuals in 2010, to an estimated 2,226. That’s an increase of almost 25%, but with the accuracy of new methods used in the census having come under fire, how can we be certain that the increase has been so significant? Whether numbers truly are rising or merely stabilising, we cannot afford to let the situation get any worse. As their habitat shrinks and the illegal wildlife trade booms, the fate of the tiger is left in the hands of its main oppressor, humans.

One of the greatest threats facing tigers today is poaching, illegal hunting driven by Traditional Chinese medicine and an illegal wildlife trade demanding tiger bones, meat and skins. Falling tiger numbers only increase the value of tiger parts, resulting in large numbers of barbaric snares being laid in tiger habitats. Many of the individuals caught in these horrific barbed wire traps are cubs; strung up by a severed paw four to five feet in the air, possibly for days, until they die of starvation, exhaustion or infection. Their carcass is then retrieved by the perpetrator to be sold for enormous profit. Declining tiger numbers only fuel the illegal wildlife trade, which is currently estimated to yield a frightening $6 billion each year.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is an enormous problem, with tigers now extinct in 11 countries and no longer found in 93% of the animal’s historic range. Tigers require large areas of intact habitat to survive, most of which is threatened by human development projects, particularly agricultural developments such as plantations. These projects, coupled with urbanisation and deforestation, fragment vital tiger habitats leading to increasingly isolated populations. This prevents gene flow between populations and hinders the maintenance of genetic diversity that is paramount for the species’ survival. Tigers are largely solitary animals, and a single male’s home range could be up to 100 square kilometres. Loss of habitat means home ranges of multiple males are likely to overlap, and although more fond of avoidance than confrontation, they can still be territorial.

Competition for crucial resources can lead to disputes and in some cases, death, particularly when females in oestrus are involved. Prey shortages can also drive tigers into human territory which often leads to them being killed by people in defence of their livestock. The need for genetic corridors (such as the China-Russia tiger corridor) which link isolated populations and allow them to breed is greater than ever if we are to ensure the long term survival of the species.

Reports from India’s 2014 tiger census suggest a growing population of the Bengal tiger, with numbers up nearly 25% from 2010. In previous surveys, the counting and analysis of pug marks (paw prints) and scat was the sole data used to estimate tiger numbers. This method is now largely considered to be inaccurate and outdated, with little scientific basis. India’s 2014 census employed a new, double-sampling method, where photographs from camera traps were analysed as well as the traditional counting of pugmarks and scat. Camera traps were set up in known tiger habitats and the photographs captured enabled scientists to identify individuals by stripe pattern, which are akin to human fingerprints.

This information, measured against pug mark analysis should be a more reliable way of estimating tiger numbers, but the methodology has drawn some criticism from ecologists. Dr. Ullas Karanth, a leading tiger expert and director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, expressed concern regarding the accuracy of the double-sampling method. Speaking in a press release, he explained “we do not believe this method can yield sufficiently refined results to accurately measure changes in tiger numbers at landscape or country-wide scales”. Rather than a nationwide survey every four years, Karanth suggests “an annual camera-trap survey of certain important habitats would be a more reliable approach.” With the future of the tiger hanging in the balance, it is evident that the development of more precise surveying methods and regular monitoring of key areas is urgently needed if we are to save them from extinction.

Even if this increase in numbers is not truly as great as has been reported, it is still progress. More money has been spent on the conservation of the tiger than any other species, and India’s efforts are certainly not in vain. Frequent patrolling of tiger reserves, regular removal of snares and the relocation of villagers previously living within tiger reserves are just some of the ways in which India is working hard to protect them. There is still a long way to go, and conservationists will no doubt await the results of next year’s global census with bated breath. The fate of the tiger rests with us, and India’s promising tiger numbers give us renewed hope that conservation efforts can go the distance and bring the tiger roaring back from the brink.