By Stuart Chapman
The goal set 10 years ago to double the number of wild tigers by 2022 remains one of the most ambitious conservation goals ever for a single species. Currently home to the vast majority of the world's remaining tigers, well-resourced protected areas are a cornerstone of this goal. Tigers are a conservation-dependent species and the persistence of tigers relies on well-funded and well-protected conservation areas.
A Bengal tiger in the Khata Forest, which 10 years ago was a degraded patch of land. This image was captured by a camera trap between November 2019 and March 2020 by WWF-Nepal.
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By Neil Carter
Tigers are one of the world's most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East — an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).
Letting Humans In<p>Road construction <a href="http://tigers.panda.org/news/asias-infrastructure-development-threatens-worlds-tigers/" target="_blank">worsens existing threats to tigers</a>, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger's range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00458.x" target="_blank">higher tiger mortality</a> due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.</p><p>To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes — 76 zones, scattered across the tiger's range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species' recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1522488113" target="_blank">Mean species abundance</a> is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.</p><p>We also used <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aabd42" target="_blank">future projections of road building</a> in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.</p>
More Roads, Fewer Animals<p>We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.</p><p>Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.</p><p>Protected areas and priority conservation sites — areas with large populations of tigers — are not immune either. For example, in India — home to more than <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/07/29/746237332/census-finds-nearly-3-000-tigers-in-india" target="_blank">70% of the world's tigers</a> — we estimate that a protected area of <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_reserves_of_India" target="_blank">500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers</a>, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.</p><p>Road networks are expansive. More than 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected — crucial to tiger population growth — is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2010.02.009" target="_blank">mammals often are less abundant</a> this close to roads.</p><p>In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That's a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.</p>
Estimated road densities for 76 tiger conservation landscapes (colored zones), with darker red indicating more roads per unit area. Neil Carter / CC BY-ND
Making Infrastructure Tiger-Friendly<p>Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.</p><p>National laws can also do more to promote <a href="https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/27751" target="_blank">tiger-friendly infrastructure planning</a>. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other "no go" zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.</p><p>Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.</p><p>Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.</p><p>There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.</p><p>Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership.</p>
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By Zak Smith
It is pretty amazing that in this moment when the COVID-19 outbreak has much of the country holed up in their homes binging Netflix, the most watched show in America over the last few weeks has been focused on wildlife trade — which scientists believe is the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is about wildlife trade and other aspects of wildlife exploitation, just as surely as the appearance of Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian flu and probably COVID-19 in humans is a result of wildlife exploitation. As a conservationist, this is one of the things I've been thinking about while watching Tiger King. Here are five more:
1. We are in a biodiversity crisis.<p><a href="https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/" target="_blank">A million plant and animal species</a> are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including tigers. The leading drivers of species decline and the impending collapse of ecosystems are ocean and land use changes (like converting wildlands into other uses, usually agricultural) and the direct exploitation of species (like taking animals out of the wild for eating, "medicinal" purposes, or status motives). It is for these exact reasons that there are more tigers in cages in the United States than there are in the wild. Developers continue to destroy tiger habitat and, in the not-so-distant past, hunters shot and killed tigers for sport or for trade in tiger products (and some still do illegally).</p>
2. We must fundamentally change our relationship to nature.<p>Transformative change is necessary to limit species extinctions and secure human well-being (functioning ecosystems provide the clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants and healthy coastal waters humans need to survive). Transformative change in this context means "a <a href="https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment" target="_blank">fundamental, system-wide reorganization</a> across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values." We aren't going to halt the loss of species and strengthen ecosystems if we continue to treat wild plants and animals as expendable and renewable resources that we can use however we want. The tigers and other animals in <em>Tiger King </em>are exploited for profit and personal interests. Regardless of how they may be respected, coveted, or cared for, they are still treated as exploitable objects, which reinforces other destructive attitudes toward nature. A tiger cub is something to be held and photographed, a wetland is something to be filled and built upon, a rhino is something to be killed so we can use its horn for fake medicine. It's a view of nature as being in service to human wants, an attitude that is destroying our planet and one that must change.</p>
3. Most wildlife trade should be banned and we should protect more wild places.<p>As noted above, ocean and land use changes and direct exploitation of species are causing an extinction crisis and threaten the ecosystems we depend on for human well-being. In line with our exploitative mindset, we've been stuck for centuries with economic and social patterns that allow unfettered use of wild places and wildlife until there's a problem. We need to flip that model on its head and only use wild places and wildlife if we can affirmatively demonstrate that such use won't contribute to the biodiversity and climate crisis. Tigers and the other animals appearing in <em>Tiger King</em> wouldn't be endangered today and wouldn't require "sanctuaries" if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and taken them from the wild for food, pets, "medicine" and trophies.</p><p>To set things right, we should ban most wildlife trade and protect more of the natural world. I say "most" wildlife trade to account for the exception of well-managed fisheries. NRDC has long sought to limit irresponsible wildlife trade (<a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/zak-smith/victory-imperiled-species-world-wildlife-conference" target="_blank">fighting for imperiled species</a> internationally, <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/elly-pepper/gov-cuomo-signs-historic-bill-reverse-biodiversity-loss" target="_blank">supporting state efforts</a> to limit trade, providing recommendations to China on <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/ning-lisa-hua/chinas-new-wildlife-trade-ban-upcoming-law-amendment" target="_blank">revisions to its wildlife law</a>), and now we must go further by banning most trade. In addition, we should support efforts to set aside vast swaths of ocean, land and terrestrial water to rebalance the functioning of our natural world. That's why NRDC and others support an initial call of protecting <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/andrew-wetzler/save-our-planet-protect-30-land-oceans-2030" target="_blank">30 percent of the world's oceans, lands and water areas</a> by 2030. In China, we're protecting areas in a way that helps tigers by supporting the government's development of a National Park system, with targeted efforts on one of its pilot parks, the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/zak-smith/important-advance-tigers" target="_blank">Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park</a>, which provides an important habitat for China's struggling populations of Amur tigers and leopards.</p>
4. Not all sanctuaries are sanctuaries.<p>A lot of so-called sanctuaries are dumpster fires; they serve no purpose other than exploitation of animals for profit, and the animals suffer needlessly. It doesn't look like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — the park formerly owned by Joe Exotic — is a sanctuary, though it styles itself as being one, so the public may be confused. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, <a href="https://www.ifaw.org/journal/tiger-king-what-you-should-know" target="_blank">legitimate sanctuaries</a> "do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in." Legitimate sanctuaries can play an important role in saving imperiled species, promoting animal welfare, and educating the public. But those that do not meet strict standards are part of the problem, not the solution. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provides accreditation for sanctuaries that abide by a set of policies, including the maintenance of a nonprofit/noncommercial status. <a href="https://bigcatrescue.org/" target="_blank">Big Cat Rescue</a>, which is featured in the <em>Tiger King </em>series, "has held <a href="https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/2020/04/02/global-federation-of-animal-sanctuaries-responds-to-tiger-king-docuseries/" target="_blank">GFAS Accreditation</a> status since 2009."</p>
5. Changing our relationship to nature must include a just transition.<p>Throughout the world and in the United States, millions of people use nature in destructive ways for their livelihoods. I don't say this with judgement; often, people are just doing what we've always done — business as usual — which is unfortunately destroying the planet. Workers in the fossil fuel industry, fishermen in unsustainable fisheries, clearcutters in the tropics and boreal forests, and even people working at fake sanctuaries depend on the current system of exploiting nature to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of other people who depend on healthy, thriving ecosystems for their livelihoods and at the expense of human well-being overall. If we want to succeed in charting a new path for our planet, we must commit to making people and communities whole. The rampant exploitation appearing on the screen in <em>Tiger King</em> isn't just of wildlife — it is also of many desperate people brutalized by a political and economic system providing few options. We're not going to successfully realign our relationship with nature if we don't provide the necessary support for people and communities to transition to more sustainable, ethical means of providing for themselves and their families.</p><p>So, watch <em>Tiger King</em> and see if for you, like me, it <a href="https://www.wired.com/story/tiger-king-coronavirus-covid-19/?bxid=5cec26573f92a45b30effa0a&cndid=52115012&esrc=Wired_etl_load&source=EDT_WIR_NEWSLETTER_0_DAILY_ZZ&utm_brand=wired&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_mailing=WIR_Daily_033120&utm_medium=email&utm_source=nl&utm_term=list1_p3" target="_blank">informs the horror of the current moment</a>, then maybe think about building a different world when we come out of this — a vibrant, natural world filled with wildlife and wonder, where we orient ourselves around preserving nature, not exploiting it, and embark on a new human journey.</p>
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Are tigers extinct in Laos?
That's the conclusion of a detailed new study that found no evidence wild tigers still exist in the country.
Illegal wildlife snares in Laos. Bill Robichaud / Global Wildlife Conservation / CC BY 2.0<p>The loss of tigers in Laos was an avoidable, if not unexpected, tragedy. The most recent <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/tiger-populations-increasing/" target="_blank">worldwide tiger population estimates</a>, released in April 2016, put the number of tigers remaining in the country at all of two. The observation of those last two Laotian tigers came from the first year of the camera survey; they were never seen again — except, in all likelihood, by the trappers who killed them.</p><p>"Our team did what we could with our limited resources to conserve the species," said Rasphone. "We did our best despite being defeated by the high international demand in the illegal wildlife trade for this species."</p><p>Their deaths continue the <a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/tigers-at-risk/" target="_blank">slow decline of the Indochinese tiger</a> (<em>Panthera tigris tigris</em>). Today their only healthy populations remain in Thailand, which at last count had about 189 wild tigers. The Indochinese tiger (previously considered its own subspecies) also persists at unsustainable levels in China (about 7 tigers), Vietnam (fewer than 5) and Myanmar (no reliable population count).</p><p>Unfortunately, the news of tigers' extirpation in Laos hasn't generated much attention in the country.</p>
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The number of tigers in the wild rose to 2,967, up from 2,226 in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the increase as a "historic achievement."
For decades, the global tiger population has been declining.
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Great news from China! Following intense international backlash, the Chinese government said Monday that it has postponed a regulation that would have allowed the use of tiger bone and rhino horn for medicine, research and other purposes.
In October, China alarmed animal rights activists around the world when it weakened a 25-year-old ban on the trading of the animal parts. Conservationists said it would be akin to signing a "death warrant" for endangered tiger and rhino populations.
China said the controversial parts would now be allowed to be used for medicine and research at certified hospitals. The government further said the parts would only be sourced from farmed animals, but conservationists say that it is hard to tell whether parts come from legal farming or illegal poaching.
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What's worse, the critically endangered Sumatran tiger was pregnant with two cubs when it died and was expected to give birth in two weeks, local reports said.
By John R. Platt
Do the species most in need of conservation also receive the most scientific research?
Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, Nepal now has an estimated 235 wild tigers in the country, a nearly twofold increase from its baseline of 121 individuals in 2009, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) announced Sunday on the occasion of Nepal's National Conservation Day.
The South Asian nation is now on track to become the first country to double its tiger population as part of WWF's "TX2" goal to double the world's wild tiger population by 2022—the next year of the tiger on the Chinese zodiac.