Tigers Forever? Hope and Struggle for this Endangered Big Cat

By Abishek Harihar, Ph.D.
Director, Tiger Program

Tiger in gully

“I realize now that I am genuinely optimistic for the first time in my nearly three decades in tiger conservation. Tiger numbers are no longer plummeting range-wide; just as importantly, the conservation community has developed a proven model for tiger conservation.”

When Dr. John Goodrich, my predecessor as Panthera’s Tiger Program Director, wrote these words last year, we had just reached an incredible milestone in conservation history. The most recent IUCN Red List Assessment for tigers found that the species’ numbers were potentially increasing for the first time in decades, although in part because of our ability to count tigers better. Nevertheless, the revised estimate of 4,500 wild tigers was cause for cautious optimism following decades of hard work by the conservation community.

Two tigers

Despite the caution, Dr. Goodrich highlighted another exciting possibility. He suggested that if this trend continues, tigers could be upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, a significant step for this iconic species, which has faced daunting conservation challenges for far too long. 

The tiger is the only big cat classified as Endangered by the IUCN, with three subspecies (the Malayan, Indochinese and Sumatran, found across Southeast Asia) listed as Critically Endangered. Despite our recent achievements, we still have a long way to go to “upgrade” tigers to "Vulnerable" in the coming decade. However, with tigers at the core of Panthera's efforts to save endangered species from the brink, we are optimistic that we can achieve this outcome.

Tiger on camera trap

The Aftermath of the Assessment

According to the IUCN Red List Assessment, tigers fare differently across their range: revised estimates in South Asia have contributed to an overall population increase. Meanwhile, populations appear stable in Northeast Asia but continue to decline in Southeast Asia. Thus, Panthera's Tigers Forever program focuses on Southeast Asia, where tiger numbers and ranges have witnessed recent declines due to poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and loss of prey. 

In Thailand and Malaysia, we have intensified our efforts. We have established offices in both countries over the past few years, increasing our ability to impact local tiger populations directly. Additionally, we are building the capacity of rangers, support staff, problem analysts, prosecutors and judges to combat illegal poaching through our recently launched Counter-Wildlife Crime program. We are also making good use of innovative, new technology. For instance, with the help of SMART (Spatial Reporting and Monitoring Tool), we identify and profile poachers in areas where tigers live, assisting law enforcement agencies in making arrests and preventing tigers and their prey from being poached. With partners by our side, a collaborative process to protect tigers is mobilizing like never before. 

Mother tiger and cub

We’re starting to meet our goals. In Thailand, the last refuge for the Indochinese tiger, we closely monitor the South Western Forest Complex (sWEFCOM). With protection support and camera trap monitoring, we have witnessed the tiger population nearly doubling over the past decade and we have worked to expand protected areas that provide safe passage for dispersing individuals. Knowing that the complex can support many more tigers than it currently does, we will not rest until our goal is achieved. In Malaysia, our initiative in Kenyir, Taman Negara has helped avert local extinction. Developing expertise in deep forest counter-poaching operations and crime problem-solving, we have addressed an insidious snaring threat posed by non-native poachers and helped ensure the survival of tigers and their prey. In cooperation with the government, we are now securing more tiger habitat.

While we’re still quite far from reaching that “Vulnerable” listing, the animal kingdom’s only Endangered big cat species is well on its way. Buttressed by Panthera and partners, including the new plan from a coalition of NGOs, “Securing a Viable Future for Tigers”, black stripes on an orange coat are roaming toward to a slow comeback. As we recognize the challenges ahead, let us also celebrate how far we’ve come.