Of all the Earth’s creatures that play vital symbolic roles in world cultures, surely the tiger stirs the human imagination as much as any. In its native Asian lands its likeness appears on currency and coats of arms, and is scratched or carved into remote jungle shrines. The Hindu goddess Durga rides a tiger into battle to vanquish evil. In Indonesia the tiger protects the Tree of Life, and in Tibet it holds the keys to immortality.

Even in the West, where the tiger is known only by reputation or in impotent captivity, its image is no less redoubtable. For Blake, it represents the genius and might of the Creator, an ingenuity so vast and so staggering as to encompass both tiger and lamb. Repeated references to the “daring” required to fashion this formidable creature seem almost to suggest a creation that can challenge its maker. For Martel’s narrator, it takes the fearsomeness of Richard Parker, the stowaway tiger in the lifeboat, to elicit the matching life force that will enable his own survival.

Yet, despite this powerful human response to the idea of the tiger, the actual tiger is one of the most endangered animals in the world. Numbering over 100,000 just a century ago, by 2010 its numbers dropped to only 3200 in the wild. There are in fact more privately-owned tigers in the state of Texas than remain in the wild globally.

While tiger habitat once stretched from Turkey to Indonesia, 93% of it has been lost in the past century, 40% just in the last decade.1 Eleven nations that formerly hosted tigers no longer do so. In China, where tigers loom especially large in the culture and iconography, only a few individuals remain in the wild; while in Korea, whose national creation myth prominently features the tiger, the species is long gone from the South and may be extinct in the North as well. The Sundarbans, the mangrove forest along the coast of eastern India and Bangladesh that hosts a population of some 300-400 Bengal tigers, is one of the regions most threatened by climate change and sea level rise. It is estimated that 96% of this unique ecosystem may be gone within half a century, along with its population of swimming, seafood-eating, saltwater-drinking tigers.2

The shrinkage of tiger habitat has also fragmented it. Like most large predators, tigers can’t survive in small, isolated islands of habitat. They require larger continuous areas in which to find adequate prey and maintain genetic diversity; otherwise a drought year, a genetic defect, or a single invasive organism could wipe out an entire population (see the similar threats to the Florida panther on the D. H. Lawrence page).

Of the original nine tiger subspecies, we have already lost three. The Bali tiger was first to go, the last one killed by hunters in 1937. It was followed by the Caspian tiger, the only tiger ever to inhabit arid lands; and the Javan tiger. Without adequate protections put in place quickly, the remaining subspecies could all be gone in our lifetime.

The threats essentially fall into two categories: habitat loss and poaching. Habitat is lost mainly to logging (much of it illegal) and the expansion of agriculture (much of it to monoculture plantations for exports such as rubber and palm oil). As foothill forests are cleared for one or the other, tigers move up into higher elevations where, unlike the more flexible leopard, they may not be able to adapt. Tiger prey species are often overhunted as well, much of it for the luxury market for exotic bushmeat; and the easy availability of livestock often causes tigers to turn to that source instead, leading to retaliatory killing by farmers.

Poaching results from the high value placed on tiger pelts and on virtually every part of their bodies, especially their bones, which are prized for medicinal purposes. Even where anti-poaching laws exist, they are poorly enforced, due to the lack of funding and effective training.

But there is hope for the tiger. Recent research showing the species’ drastic decline has galvanized efforts, locally and internationally, to establish the policies and protections necessary to its recovery. In 2010 a Tiger Summit was held in St. Petersburg, Russia in which the 13 remaining tiger-hosting nations created the Global Tiger Recovery Plan. Its goal is to try to double the number of tigers by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger. The program is called Tx2, and an assessment of progress at the midway point in 2016 showed that in some locations, especially in Russia, India, Bhutan, and Nepal, some progress has indeed been made.

The new data, compiled from the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and, in a few nations, recent national surveys, show an increase to approximately 3890 tigers. The increase has been attributed to better survey methods (using camera traps and DNA from tiger scat), the inclusion of more areas where tiger presence had been suspected but never before surveyed, and real improvements in the protection of some tiger populations, their habitat, and their prey.

In India, for instance, thanks to vigorous protection efforts, some tiger preserves have reached saturation level and can now begin to provide tigers for introduction into areas that have lost their tiger populations entirely. Nepal has achieved the distinction of becoming the first nation to attain Zero Poaching, for the year ending in February 2014, and sponsored a symposium in Katmandu in 2015 where delegates from tiger nations could share best anti-poaching practices.

In eastern Siberia, home to some 400 Amur or Siberian tigers, the Russian government has recently established new regulations to protect Korean pine, a heavily-logged species whose nuts are essential to the tiger’s prey in that region.3 This is expected to help thwart the growing threat to what was until recently a relatively stable tiger population.

The new figures have been disputed by some scientists, who believe the survey methods are inaccurate and may give rise to undue optimism and a slackening of conservation efforts. They point out that tiger habitat has shrunk massively and what has been lost cannot be restored; that poaching has reached higher levels than ever; and that tigers continue to decline in many areas, including China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, which have essentially lost their tigers in recent years, due to continuing rampant deforestation and poaching.4 They believe the likelihood of success in doubling tiger numbers by 2022 is vanishingly small.

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Others acknowledge that the survey methods are not perfect, but point out that they are more complete than previous surveys, and that greater knowledge of where tigers are leads to a better capacity for protecting them.5 They also point to the fact that for every tiger that is protected, about 25,000 acres of forest are also protected, securing habitat for many other species, maintaining the health of the watershed, providing cleaner air and a greater carbon sink, and offering other environmental benefits of incalculable value. Delegates to the 2016 tiger strategy meeting issued a resolution acknowledging the inherent value of forests, and declaring that tiger habitat protection does not jeopardize economic growth.6 This represents a substantial revision of former thinking.

In the end, the tigers’ best hope for a comeback may be their own fecundity, combined with vigorous and urgent action by host nations. Given the rapidity with which they breed, sufficient habitat and prey availability together with protection from poaching could enable a strong recovery. According to Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund, “We know how to conserve tigers. If we stop the poaching of tigers and their prey and protect their habitat, they come roaring back.”7

1 Goodrich, J. et al. Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T15955A50659951. 2015. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15955/0

2 World Wildlife Fund. “New study shows Bengal tiger’s habitat in danger.” Jan 19, 2010. http://www.worldwildlife.org/search?cx=003443374396369277624%3Av3nraqhmeyk&ie=UTF-8&x=bengal+tiger%27s+habitat+in+danger

3 Poston, Lee. “Russian tiger habitat gets a boost with protection of key tree species.” World Wildlife Fund, July 30, 2010. http://www.worldwildlife.org/search?cx=003443374396369277624%3Av3nraqhmeyk&ie=UTF-8&x=russian+tiger+habitat+gets+a+boost

4 Karanth, K Ullas; Miquelle, Dale; Goodrich, John; Gopalaswamy, Arjun. “Statement of concern by tiger biologists.” April 15 2016. http://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/8872/Statement-of-Concern-by-Tiger-Biologists-.aspx

5 World Wildlife Fund. “3,890 – What the new global tiger number means.” http://tigers.panda.org/t2/what-the-new-global-tiger-number-means/

6 Daigle, Katy. “Tiger countries agree to preserve big-cat habitats.” AP: The big story. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/49530dee4e034d5cacc10f5969b7a03a/tiger-countries-agree-preserve-big-cat-habitats Accessed 25 April 2016.

7 Handwerk, Brian. “Tiger habitat plummeted 40 percent in 10 years, survey finds.” National Geographic News, July 20, 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/07/060720-tigers.html