Collective Roar: A Global Tiger Recovery Effort
Decades ago, it might have seemed inevitable that one of the world’s fiercest predators would be erased from the planet. After the global tiger population plunged to an all-time low in 2010—leaving just 3,200 of the big cats in the wild, versus the 100,000 a century before—governments and conservation organizations realized they needed to forge a shared vision.
Determined to revive dwindling habitats and stem rampant poaching across Asia, wildlife leaders from 13 countries set a bold goal: to double the world tiger population by 2022. Yet project leaders knew that reaching the Global Tiger Recovery Program’s TX2 (tiger times two) target couldn’t happen unless critical stakeholders changed their stripes.
“This is widely seen as one of the most ambitious global recovery efforts ever undertaken for an endangered species and historic in terms of engaging the participation of all range countries,” says Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for wildlife conservation, WWF, Washington, D.C.
The program’s tiger range countries (TRCs)—Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam—partnered with WWF, the Global Tiger Forum, the Global Tiger Initiative Council and other entities to pick up where India’s groundbreaking and decades-long Project Tiger efforts left off.
A Shared Commitment
To facilitate a cross-border collaboration, project leaders couldn’t just pounce—they had to strategically attack the problem. That meant establishing a plan that kept all countries on the same page, while acknowledging that each had unique challenges that could slow progress.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, palm oil production helps drive the economy and ultimately helps fund critical public infrastructure and educational needs. But the industry also is a threat to natural tiger habitats. Teams needed to learn how to convince those governments to balance conservation against wider economic needs.
So over the past 12 years, delegates from the 13 TRCs have met to share knowledge and best practices, with a strong focus on strengthening tiger governance. These conversations supported TRCs and like-minded agencies with go-to strategies for cultivating partnerships and solving problems—and became a true North Star for efforts “which might otherwise be happening in silos,” says Mohnish Kapoor, head of program and partnerships, Global Tiger Forum, New Delhi.
For example, the Global Tiger Forum helps promote strong communication so TRCs can achieve common ground with ongoing efforts by governments and other regional partners, Kapoor says. The organization shares reports, studies and manuals on its website, and it steers TRCs to establish and review key performance indicators so they can apply and share lessons learned throughout.
“Partnerships and involvement at all levels with multiple stakeholders give steam to the ongoing efforts while ensuring regular support, where possible,” Kapoor says.
Project leaders also have built and maintained a shared strategy for preserving habitats. In 2013, WWF and partners established criteria known as Conservation Assured | Tiger Standards (CA|TS). Jayasinghe calls CA|TS “a unified grading system for protected area management” that helps teams in each country measure their success and share good practices across borders. To earn CA|TS approval, a conservation site must pass a series of independent reviews. India is leading the charge on CA|TS implementation, with all of its tiger reserves registered and 14 new sites recently approved.
Laying a foundation for austerity has been essential in helping to mitigate funding risks. While governments are the primary project sponsors, NGO funding fortifies efforts. Case in point: WWF, which counts about 80 percent of the wild tiger population in its managed landscapes, has invested or leveraged more than US$200 million toward the TX2 goal. The focus on collaboration has also reinforced agility across the Global Tiger Recovery Program. For instance, when World Bank exited from its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) program in 2015, the TRCs mandated the restructured GTI and the intergovernmental platform of the Global Tiger Forum to oversee, monitor and review the Global Tiger Recovery Program. This also involved close collaboration with several global and national agencies on individual thematic areas, Kapoor says.
“The project has been able to bridge the information gap, with reporting of actual status and needs assessment in order to meet ever-increasing threats to wild habitats and natural resources,” he says.
With more than 57 million people living within tiger landscapes, project leaders have also focused their communication efforts on “sustaining millions of humans, whose lives directly depend on these natural ecosystems,” Kapoor says. Emphasizing a people-centered approach helps enable a true partnership with stakeholders to achieve a level of coexistence with tigers that benefits both people and animals, Jayasinghe says.
“Indigenous and local communities play a pivotal role in conservation, and we’ve seen it time and time again in our tiger work,” she says. “Collaboration and partnerships have been instrumental in supporting tiger recovery and securing success.”
Turning to Tech
Despite their striking coloring, tigers can be “hard to find and hard to count,” says Jayasinghe. So project leaders have leaned into digital tools and other tech—from traditional to cutting-edge—to establish population baselines, track progress and measure impact.
By strategically placing motion sensor camera traps within habitats for weeks or even months, teams can capture video and images that help them monitor activity. In India, for example, camera traps help to track the tiger population across an astounding 380,000 square kilometers (146,719 square miles) of forest. Just like a human fingerprint, no two tigers’ stripes are the same, so teams set up dual cameras—one capturing the left side of a tiger’s body and the other capturing the right—to paint the full picture.
Camera traps can also help teams assess whether populations are thriving. In Thailand, for instance, scientists have repeatedly spotted the same male tiger (known as MKM8) in Mae Wong National Park—a positive indication that the tiger is doing well in its natural habitat. The MKM8 revelation also reinforces the collaborative power of the project: The positive ID was confirmed by a shared database used by the WWF and other program partners in the Western Forest Complex, which straddles Thailand and Myanmar.
WWF is testing out new tech, too. Because camera traps can be costly and time-intensive to monitor, the organization is piloting environmental DNA (eDNA) to assess tiger prey populations in Bhutan. The technology analyzes an organism’s stray DNA—captured from the air, soil, sediment or water—to answer questions about the biodiversity and ecology of a specific area. According to Jayasinghe, its use could help the team “determine where tigers are and whether there is sufficient food to maintain or increase tiger numbers.”
Teams are even using tech to turn the table on poachers. Global connectivity has made it easier for poachers to make commercial connections and illicit transactions. So in 2018, WWF partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic to launch the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. With the support of 47 partner companies, including tech giants like Microsoft, Google, eBay and Alibaba, the coalition scrubs internet listings for tigers and other endangered animals (and their byproducts). That cyber prowling has been lethal to poaching attempts: So far, the participating companies have eliminated or blocked 11.6 million listings.
Blueprint for the Future
There’s mounting evidence that all the hard work is giving new life to tigers. At India’s Manas National Park, better management and protection have helped the the tiger population soared from zero to 48. An initiative to boost community anti-poaching patrols reduced active tiger snares by 99 percent in the past few years at Malaysia’s Belum Temengor Forest Complex. And training and educational efforts to make community members better stewards of forests have helped to recover 3,800 hectares (9,390 acres) of a critical tiger wildlife corridor in Nepal.
“Each country’s journey toward TX2 has been different, and tiger populations are now increasing in some of the range countries with the largest tiger populations, including India, Nepal and Bhutan,” Jayasinghe says. Parks and tiger reserves in countries like India and Nepal have seen their tiger populations double, triple or even quadruple in the last few years, she says.
Project leaders are confident they have created a sustainable conservation model—one that has reversed the tiger population declines documented in 2010. Their next objective? Building on that foundation by getting the 13 TRCs to agree to re-up their efforts and develop a Global Tiger Recovery Program for the next decade by the end of 2022. They’re also looking to increase investment and support from all stakeholders—governments, businesses and communities.
“Now, there is real momentum, and doubling the population is about when we will get there, not whether we can,” Jayasinghe says.
In the Year of the Tiger, lessons learned from the program are also providing a template for other WWF wildlife recovery projects, including jaguar conservation, Jayasinghe says. In Latin America, more than half of the jaguar’s original range has been lost because of factors such as deforestation and agriculture expansion. To mitigate those negative impacts, WWF is implementing conservation strategies that demonstrate how restoring the jaguar population can also boost the entire natural ecosystem—to the benefit of farmers and other community stakeholders.
“Success or failure means more than securing the future of a single iconic species,” Jayasinghe says. “It sets a precedent for how we will consider and prioritize the health of nature in global development and in a changing climate going forward.”
Photos taken by Noah Willman
Tiger images courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund