Scientific American
It's Global Tiger Day. How Is the Effort to Save Them Going?
By K. Ullas Karanth - 2018 ACE Award for Conservation Excellence Hero

Today is Global Tiger Day—befittingly so because of the cat's immense popularity among people both in its Asian home and world-wide. It is a day to evaluate where we are headed in the strenuous effort to recover this icon of nature's diversity.

Global efforts targeting tiger recovery began in the 1960's. All the putative “wild tiger numbers” touted along the way (4000-5000 animals), however, are either glorified guesses or conjured up using poor methods.

What is clear is that the needle of wild tiger numbers has not moved, even after sixty years. There may even be fewer wild tigers and in fewer places now. Tiger populations at higher densities with some possibility of persisting now occupy less than 6 percent of their surviving habitat of 1.2 million square kilometers.


Yet in some places in India, Nepal, Thailand, Russia—and even China—a few tiger populations have rebounded. Such recoveries resulted from right conservation actions, such as regulation of hunting of tigers and their prey, ceasing forest extractions and degradation, and even by finding alternative space and livelihoods for people sharing tiger habitats.

The model of effective recovery is clear. When populations of natural prey—deer, pigs and wild cattle—recover, tiger numbers surge after a couple of decades. This was no rocket science. The most effective tiger recovery tactics were commonsense-based.

However, given that failures of tiger recovery are far more common, the critical need is to objectively study, monitor, and understand both recoveries and declines. This can only be possible through rigorous conservation audits—both ecological as well as social. Without learning adaptively by applying robust science to conservation, the needle of tiger numbers is likely to remain stuck at its current low.

Unfortunately, much of global tiger conservation effort has failed this science test. Ironically, the reason is profligate funding of “tiger censuses,” which have increasingly become the norm. This excessive funding is problematic. The blatant conflict of interest stemmed in part from a decision to have the same government officials accountable for tiger population recoveries also monitoring their own “success.”

Many of the resulting claims about tiger numbers, densities, and habitat occupancy advertised in glossy reports and celebratory tiger events defy biology, mathematics, and logic—as rigorous analyses have shown. 

Excessive funding, in combination with the aforementioned science deficiency, has had other detrimental consequences as well. The lack of transparency in sharing tiger survey data for wider scientific scrutiny, combined with much hype about expensive hardware and clever software apps appears to have obscured from the media and the public the fundamental futility and unreliability of such “tiger monitoring.”

In striking contrast, during the same 60-year period, other fields such as medicine, agriculture, information technology, and telecommunications have progressed rapidly—by embracing, not abhorring rigorous science. We just have to compare the green revolution in agriculture with contemporaneous tiger recovery to see the difference.

All these applied fields also progressed tremendously by structurally switching from state-monopoly models towards significant collaborations with non-governmental expertise and players.

The challenge before tiger conservationists is to break these bureaucratic shackles and reach out to benefit from science and enterprise. Our vision on Global Tiger Day should be of a living planet with 25,000-50,000 wild tigers, not the miserable 5000 that we are urged to “celebrate” with annoying frequency.

K. Ullas Karanth

K. Ullas Karanth is a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in New York City. Originally trained as an engineer, he later became a conservation biologist. Karanth has studied tigers for more than 30 years.

Credit: Nick Higgins