Conservationists Call For Triage in Fight to Protect Dwindling Tigers

A new study released today in PLoS Biology concludes the best bet to save wild tigers from extinction is to focus conservation efforts on 42 sites mostly in India, Indonesia, and Far East Russia. Wide-scale hunting and habitat loss, say the authors, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City, have reduced the worldwide wild tiger population to about 3500 tigers, of which only about 1000 are estimated to be breeding females. Though tigers once prowled across most of continental Asia and the Indonesian islands, they're now found only in isolated pockets that make up less than 7% of their historical range.

Past efforts to protect tigers have often been too wide in focus, the researchers say. Though well-meaning, they explain, activists tried to stop poaching and preserve habitats over unrealistically large geographical areas. Those efforts were largely inadequate, as evidenced by the fact that tigers disappeared entirely from northwestern India's Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2004 and central India's Panna National Park last year.

These local extinctions led the study's authors to suggest that protection efforts should be aimed at the comparatively few wildlife reserves that have the resources and stable breeding populations necessary to support repopulation efforts. "We argue that such a shift in emphasis would reverse the decline in wild tigers and do so in a rapid and cost-efficient manner," they say in the study. The new effort would cost $82 million per year to cover the costs of law enforcement, wildlife monitoring, and community education programs, a $35 million increase over current tiger-protection funds. The researchers may win support for that effort when they present their findings in November at the Tiger Summit, to be held in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok.

The success of any tiger-preservation effort will ultimately hinge on reducing poaching, which is motivated largely by trophy hunting, the fur trade, and the wide use of tigers' body parts in traditional Chinese medicine. Toward that last end, several environmental organizations and the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies are pressuring practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to stop using tiger parts in their medicines, though it will be difficult to persuade many to give up a deeply rooted tradition.