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Tigers Are Making a Comeback for the First Time in a Century

The first international tiger census since 2010 shows significant progress in many nations, but improvement is hampered by widespread deforestation, development, and poaching.

by Jake Bleiberg
Apr 11 2016, 7:10pm

Photo par Christy Williams/WWF

Tigers are clawing closer to a comeback.

After being pushed to the brink of extinction in the wild by a century of hunting and habitat destruction, roughly 3,890 of the world's largest cats are now spread across 13 countries in Asia, according to data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). That's up from the estimated 3,200 tigers living in the wild in 2010, the last year a global census was conducted.

While the number of tigers in some countries has fallen over the last six years, population gains were notable in Russia, Nepal, Bhutan, and India, which is home to the majority of the world's wild tigers.

The rise in tiger numbers is partially the result of improved surveying methods. But the WWF also said populations have risen thanks to strengthened protections and national commitments to double the number of wild tigers by 2022 — the next Chinese year of the tiger.

"This is the first time in a century that we've been able to reverse the declining trend, but we still have a long way to go," said Nilanga Jayasinghe, program officer for Asian species conservation with the WWF. "The problems and the threats are still very prevalent."

Related: Thai Authorities Raid Famous Buddhist Tiger Temple for Alleged Wildlife Trafficking

In India, government figures show the tiger population increased by one-third in recent years, from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014, as the country set aside greater amounts of land as protected habitat.

"Tiger-range" countries will meet this week to coordinate conservation efforts, but not all of them have managed to stop the habitat loss and poaching that threatens the cats. Last week, Cambodian conservationists declared the species "functionally extinct" in the country, where a tiger hasn't been caught on film since 2007.

The loss of tiger populations, explained Jayasinghe, has environmental implications well beyond the species itself. As a top, or keystone, predator, tiger depopulation causes the number of the large herbivores on which they prey to balloon, disrupting the delicate balance that maintains an ecosystem.

The human threat to tigers, especially in Southeast Asia, comes from deforestation, infrastructure development, and poaching of the animals, whose body parts are consumed for supposed medicinal value, including treating aches and pains, curing alcoholism, and boosting sexual energy.

"Every part of the tiger — from whisker to tail — is traded in illegal wildlife markets, feeding a multi-billion dollar criminal network," said the WWF in a statement.

Large information gaps remain when it comes to counting wild tigers. Of the 13 tiger-range countries only five have up-to-date population surveys, while seven rely on estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Myanmar, due to its ongoing political unrest, has neither.

Nonetheless, the WWF said nations are on track to hit their goal of 6,000 wild tigers by 2022, which would be just six percent of the estimated wild population in 1900 and slightly more than the 5,000 tigers living in captivity in the United States.

Related: Over Half of Earth's Wildlife Has Been Killed in the Past 40 Years

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @jzbleiberg

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