By Jonathon Porritt
On International Tiger Day, the need to verify how many of these beasts still exist has never been more urgent
Global experts reckon that the wild tiger population has dropped by 97 per cent since 1900. We’re bombarded by so many shock-horror statistics about the state of the world that a lot of them just bounce off us. But that one sticks: 97 per cent.
Tomorrow is International Tiger Day, and The Independent is working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to highlight the plight of the tiger. No one’s quite sure exactly how many tigers there are alive today, but back in 2010, the global population was estimated at 3,200, which makes them one of the most endangered species on the planet.
But even that figure required significant guesswork, as many countries at that time had not undertaken systematic national tiger surveys. Wild tiger numbers are currently known for India, Nepal and Russia, which carry out regular national surveys, and numbers will soon be known for Bhutan, Bangladesh and China – all of which are in the process of carrying out surveys. Less is known about the size of tiger populations in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The year 2010 was also the point (at the Tiger Summit in St Petersburg) at which governments from the 13 tiger-range countries committed to doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022. We are now more than a third of the way to 2022, meaning we need to move at a faster, more determined pace if we are to achieve that goal of doubling tiger numbers.
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them to poachers without even knowing it. Surveying after tigers have been poached is too late. At the moment, Malaysia and Indonesia are the most crucial countries – both potentially have a significant proportion of the global tiger population and contain two tiger subspecies. However, both are facing great threats from poaching and habitat loss.
And that’s why, on World Tiger Day, NGOs such as the WWF are urging countries to carry out surveys urgently. It takes at least a year to complete a survey, as well as an additional six to 12 months to plan, so these surveys must start now if an updated global tiger figure is to be released by the halfway point in 2016.
One of the key ways conservation can help to increase tiger numbers is by bringing groups together to breed, and as national surveys track tiger populations, locations and trends, this is an essential part of any conservation effort. Surveys also reveal where tigers are living outside protected areas or moving between protected areas through unknown or unprotected corridors. Governments need this information in order to focus anti-poaching efforts effectively – another essential task to reach 2022’s target.
Each and every tiger is visually distinctive. Just as humans can be identified by their fingerprints, tigers can be recognised by their stripes, which form a unique pattern. No two tigers are identical. But the principal problem to national tiger surveys is that they are very labour-intensive, and often take place in difficult terrain with challenging weather conditions. And that means they’re expensive. However, the returns far outweigh the investment, and NGOs are working with governments to share technical expertise and explore potential funding sources, including international and private environment granting institutions.
Poaching remains the greatest threat to wild tigers. In 2012, tiger-poaching levels reached their highest for 12 years, with as many as 71 killed in India. Sixty-three were lost in 2013. More than 70 per cent of Amur tiger deaths are caused by humans.
Statistics from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, show that a minimum of 1,590 tigers were seized between January 2000 and April 2014. That represents an average of two per week, and, sadly, actual poaching levels are likely to be much higher. It is feared that countries not carrying out national tiger surveys could be losing their tigers to poachers without even realising it. This may already be the case for some countries.
These alarming facts highlight why tiger-range countries must carry out these surveys. It may sound geeky, but both successful fundraising and effective programmes on the ground depend on this kind of accurate, reliable data. Video.
How to help:Text: TIGER 70060 to make a £3 donation
Telephone: 0844 7360036
To adopt a tiger: bit.ly/WWFAdopt
To donate to WWF Russia: wwf.org.uk/protecttigers
This is a charity donation service. Texts cost £3 plus one message at your standard network rate (age 16+; UK mobiles only). The WWF will receive 100 per cent of your £3 gift. The WWF may contact you again in future. If you would prefer it not to call, please text NOCALL WWF to 70060. If you would prefer not to receive SMS messages from the WWF, please text NOSMS WWF to 70060. If you wish to discuss a mobile payment call 0203 282 7863. Except for the Adopt a Tiger programme, donations made through the provided links and telephone number will go towards the WWF’s tiger projects in the Russian far east. For more details, visit wwf.org.uk/tigerterms. WWF UK, charity registered in England, number 1081247, and in Scotland, number SC039593.