Wild tiger populations in many regions are responding positively to scientific and sensitive conservation efforts that consider landscapes, species and people in a balanced way. In India, where the largest population of tigers live, survey data suggest Bengal tiger numbers have risen from an estimated 2,226 in 2015 to an estimated 2,967 according to the Status of Tigers in India 2018. In Nepal, tiger numbers went up from 198 in 2013 to 235 in 2018.
It’s a similar story in the Russian Far East, northeast China and Bhutan. Sumatra with its unique island subspecies is stabilising and even increasing tiger numbers in several key protected areas such as Kerinci Seblat National Park and Leuser National Park.
Conservation through out the coronavirus pandemic has continued, with antipoaching patrols, wildlife crime investigations and population monitoring finding solutions amongst the crisis. Though the long term implications of COVID-19 on conservation actions, wildlife and wild places is still unclear, there is an appetite for positive recovery.
Tiger numbers increase yet tiger populations are still fragile and there is much work to do. A devastating example of this fragility was in May 2020 in the east of the Indian subcontinent, where the Sundarban of Bangladesh and West Bengal were hit by supercyclone Amphan. This resulted in massive devastation throughout the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve during the Covid-19 lockdown. Officials suggest that about one-third of the Sundarbans was damaged in the disaster and 1,200 sq km of the total 4,263 sq km of forests had been destroyed. Landscape destruction on this scale will put severe pressures on tigers and prey across this region. The 2018 Sundarbans census, suggests tiger abundance increased by 8% since 2015 but the numbers are thought to be fewer than 100 making this population truly vulnerable.
Conflict between tigers and humans in the Sundarbans is well known but the impact of thousands of flooded villages and the resulting temporary relief camps has exacerbated human-wildlife conflict as both humans and wildlife compete for the same land. This resource competition if left unchecked in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic may drive the rural poor into the forest for resources and livelihoods or into the clutches of the traders in the illegal wildlife markets. Therefore initiatives building resilience such as beekeeping in Indian Sundarbans villages rather than collecting wild forest honey supports communities.
With the target to double the global population of wild tigers by 2022 fast approaching, more needs to be done to ensure the long term future of this iconic species.