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In the last few weeks since the Netflix series “Tiger King” first aired, I have conducted non-stop interviews about the shameful commercial tiger farming in the United States in the name of “conservation”.
As someone who has dedicated his entire career to saving this magnificent species in the wild, I find this exploitation gruesome, but as serious as it is, America's backyard tiger crisis pales in comparison to the one unfolding. In nature.
Ten years ago, in the year before the Tiger, the Global Tiger Recovery Program was launched with a bold promise to double global tiger numbers by 2022, an initiative known as TX2. The tiger's 13 range states committed to TX2, initiating a massive push to raise $ 536 million to fund priority actions.
With only two years to go until TX2's deadline, it's time to ask, "How are the tigers doing?" The answer: “Better in some places, the best we can say, but very, very bad in others; he's certainly not on track to double the range by 2022, and he's definitely still the most threatened big cat. ”
Such a response is not the subject of press release headlines. And it's certainly not what one would expect given the level of fanfare and global financial support TX2 has received. While we must continue to increase tiger numbers, now a focus on each range state, it is time to set our collective gaze on a different way of measuring progress: instead of trying to count each tiger, we need to monitor trends in tiger numbers as an indicator of effectiveness of conservation interventions.
Globally, TX2 is a target that we cannot realistically measure. Tigers are cryptic, elusive, and inhabit some of the most inaccessible corners of the world, and while scientists are very good at estimating numbers in smaller areas such as national parks, estimates for the entire range are little more than the opinion of experts.
Also, the TX2 timeline is unrealistic. A recent study by Dr. Abishek Harihar predicted that based on tiger and prey reproductive rates and the time it takes to implement the necessary anti-poaching and community engagement strategies, reaching TX2 would take around 30 years in most cases.
Chasing an immeasurable goal and rushing to show progress against it, you risk masking reality on the ground: Despite some notable successes, the tigers are still in dire straits in most places. The good news is that tigers are on the rise in India and Nepal. With strong commitments from their governments, both countries have developed and implemented conservation models that are reducing poaching and allowing tigers to recover dramatically at some sites, such as Manas National Park in India and Parsa National Park in Nepal.
However, Southeast Asian tigers are in big trouble. Myanmar has only a small population of less than 20 tigers. Poaching and deforestation threaten Malaysian and Indonesian tigers, with some predicting the extinction of the Malayan tiger within 3-5 years. Thailand has the only remaining breeding population of Indochinese tigers; The subspecies has been extinct in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since the turn of the century.
To reverse these trends and demonstrate the kind of progress that is unassailable and sustainable, we need the kind of commitment the late Alan Rabinowitz had in mind in 2006 when he challenged a group of scientists to abandon the notions of just stopping decline and cracking into a plan to increase the number of tigers.
Based on conservation successes in India and elsewhere, the plan was ambitious and science-based. It became the most recognized, widely adopted and tested method of retrieving tigers by targeting well-connected networks of inviolable source sites with room for 70 or more tigers. The cost of blocking a single viable source site averages about $ 1 million per year, in addition to local government spending.
To address critical threats, experts working together on the ground have developed cost-effective and measurable solutions against which we can track actual progress. Training local rangers in wildlife intelligence and technology surveillance helps them stay one step ahead of poachers and bring criminals to justice. Offering local people alternatives to the resources they depend on in protected areas improves their health and wealth while reducing pressure on tiger habitat.
Corridors that allow tigers to move between protected areas are critical for long-term genetic viability. Maintaining them is more complex, but still well understood, and requires careful planning and management of resource extraction, livestock grazing, human-tiger conflict, and infrastructure development.
On a global scale, the dismantling of poaching syndicates and the illegal wildlife trade must go hand in hand with reducing the demand for wildlife products primarily for traditional Asian medicine, a cultural shift that may take generations. The impacts of the illegal wildlife trade have never been more apparent as the world is paralyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which likely originated from a wildlife market.
And while direct interventions to recover tigers will be more resource-intensive, all of these efforts must be sustained indefinitely to prevent setbacks and suppress persistent threats of poaching, invasion and habitat destruction, as well as sustained management. of the human-tiger conflict where populations have recovered
We need to encourage successes like those of India and Nepal as signs that the science-based conservation methods they have adopted are working. But we must be careful not to claim "mission accomplished" too soon for the tigers of Southeast Asia to continue their silent decline into oblivion.
The threats to tigers are as intense as ever. Yet in the years since the Global Tiger Initiative announced that it had nearly reached its goal of half a trillion dollars, funding for tiger conservation on the ground has been increasingly difficult.
Only a few donors understand that tiger recovery, as for any endangered species, is a marathon, not a sprint. For more than a decade, these investors have seeded new initiatives like SMART, PoacherCam advanced camera technology, and elite ranger training methods that are now in use by leading conservation professionals across the tiger range.
They have encouraged innovation and embraced risk with confidence in a strategy founded on science. Their investments are paying off in ways we can accurately measure, upward trends in tiger numbers, and they are helping fuel the tiger's sustained recovery.
We have to act now to focus global investment like a laser in proven tiger conservation solutions in areas where tigers are most threatened before the next Year of the Tiger in 2022. What a terrible irony it will be if while celebrating a perceived victory, we miss Our opportunity. to fulfill the ambition of the tigers forever.