Tiger habitats worldwide have shrunk 40 percent in the past decade and their survival depends on cracking down on poaching, working to reduce conflicts with humans, and protecting key ranges, according to a study released Thursday that conservationists said was the most thorough ever.
The worldwide tiger population has steadily declined to about 7,500, and the big cats continue to face a myriad of threats — including the trade in tiger parts to meet demand for traditional medicines in China and Southeast Asia.
Tigers now reside in only 7 percent of their historic range — 40 percent less than a decade ago, according to scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Save The Tiger Fund.
“This report documents a low-water mark for tigers,” John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement.
Estimating the number of wild tigers is difficult, said Eric Dinerstein, one of the study authors, but he noted that if there were an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers a decade ago, there are almost certainly fewer than 5,000 now.
“There are probably more tigers alive in private hands in the state of Texas than in the wild worldwide,” Dinerstein said.
76 areas identified
The study identified for the first time 76 areas, mostly in Asia, that have the best chance of supporting tiger populations.
"Many important areas have been overlooked for funding, largely because there has been no method to systematically identify areas of high conservation potential," the study said.
About half of the 76 areas can support 100 tigers and "offer excellent opportunities for the recovery of wild tiger populations."
Researchers are focusing on a few key regions in India, Russia's far east and parts of Southeast Asia. Tiger breeding areas must be protected and efforts to link different tiger habitats need to be improved, the study said.
"We have learned many important lessons over the last 10 years, and this study provides a blueprint for scientists and the countries that hold the key for the tigers' survival," said Mahendra Shrestha, director of National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save The Tiger Fund, which commissioned the study.
Conservation efforts so far have helped stabilize certain tiger populations, but many initiatives were "ad hoc" and "did little to stem the crisis," the study found.
Robinson said tiger conservation requires commitment from local groups, governments, and international donors to "bring the species back to all parts of its biological range."
India-Nepal project touted
Some good news can be found in southern Nepal and northern India, where a five-year conservation program has connected 12 formerly isolated tiger reserves, and has engaged local communities to help with the project, said Shrestha.
Communities around the tiger reserves get 50 percent of the proceeds from the reserves nearest to them, Shrestha said. If tigers kill family members or livestock, local residents are compensated, he said.
Shrestha said reclaiming the tigers’ habitat could have global environmental impact.
“The area that the tiger requires is a huge chunk of land,” he said in an interview. “If we can save tigers, then that means we are saving a huge chunk of forest ... the global community can benefit from that.”
A single tiger requires an average of nearly 20 squares miles of good quality forest, he said.
Locally, forest products including fruit, nuts and mushrooms benefit neighboring communities, Shrestha said. And the clean water needed to support tiger habitat also supports agriculture, fish farming and hydroelectric dams, he said.
Additional background is online at www.tigermaps.org.