Wild tigers are dying. There’s no other word for it. Their numbers have declined in the wild from perhaps 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, to more than 10,000 in the 1980s to less than 3,500 today. Their habitat in India, Russia, China and Southeast Asia has been carved up, their prey has been taken away from them and tigers are killed, their parts used in traditional medicine. Despite the millions of dollars that have been spent to save one of the most charismatic and iconic species on the planet, if current trends continue—and there’s little reason to expect they won’t—tigers will be all but extinct in the wild some day soon. “Wild tigers are right on the brink,” says John Robinson, executive vice president for conservation and science at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). “They are very thin on the ground now.”
But Robinson and his colleagues think they’ve come up with a way to save the tigers—but it will require a change in the way conservation is done. The experts—describing their proposal in an article published Tuesday evening in the journal PLoS Biology—say that protecting just 42 sites across Asia could give wild tigers the necessary breathing to arrest and even reverse their steady decline. (The paper’s authors are a who’s who of conservation experts, including Robinson, Panthera CEO Alan Rabinowitz, Simon Stuart of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.) The 42 sites—which collectively cover less than 100,000 sq. km and just 6% of the known tiger range—contain almost 70% of all remaining wild tigers. Save that relatively tiny territory, and you might be able to save the tigers as well. “Protecting source sites offers the most pragmatic and efficient opportunity to conserve most of the world’s remaining wild tigers,” the authors write in PLoS.
Efficient means inexpensive—the PLoS authors estimate that protecting and monitoring tigers in all 42 source sites would cost $82 million a year, and note that more than half that money has already been committed by Asian nations looking to protect tigers. That still leaves a shortfall of some $35 million a year, though there’s been growing interest among Asian countries in protecting wild tigers. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—a fan of tigers—will be hosting a major tiger summit in November, and Robert Zoellick, the American head of the World Bank, launched a Global Tiger Initiative in 2008. “Putin has a personal interest in saving tigers,” says Robinson.
But the conservation plan outline in PLoS represents a departure from the desire method for conservation—protecting large swathes of land where a variety of plants and animals can use as habitat. That strategy is simply too expensive for tigers, however—dead tigers can sell for as much as $3,500. The PLoS authors are offering a last chance to save tigers, and it will require hard decisions. But it may be the only way to save them. “If we don’t do this, the tigers will lose,” says Robinson. “Benign neglect doesn’t cut it.”