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Could Wild Tiger Populations Double by 2022?

A tiger in Kanha National Park, India. Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

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.

Investing in 'tiger protected areas' helps protect globally-important ecosystems including some of Asia's last wilderness. These areas contain a wealth of critically important goods and ecosystem services that tens of millions of people rely on, from mitigating climate change and regulating freshwater to reducing the impact of natural disasters and improving the health of local people.

But as COVID-19 has severely impacted so many people, communities and countries around the world, it also threatens to undermine the ability of protected areas to conserve tigers, due to budget cuts and a changing role for the rangers who are at the forefront of managing protected areas.

Led by WWF Tigers Alive Initiative, a recent survey of 77 staff across more than 40 protected areas in tiger range countries highlights the problems currently facing tiger protected 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.

Tiger Conservation Budgets Are Being Cut

Almost half of respondents in the survey indicated that their budget for managing protected areas had already been reduced, compared to pre-COVID levels. Most concerning is that three-quarters of respondents were pessimistic about future budget allocation. It comes as no surprise then that 62% were pessimistic about their ability to manage the protected area due to the impacts of the pandemic.

These findings are compounded by the fact that budgets for protected areas are already greatly uneven across tiger range countries. India commits a combined $111 million from national and state budgets for the management of the nation's 50 tiger reserves, which support roughly three-quarters of the world's population and provide billions of dollars of annual ecosystem services. In other tiger range countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, the government budgets for protected area management and tiger conservation are orders of magnitude less. These are the countries which are struggling, even prior to COVID, to conserve and recover their tigers.

Rangers in most tiger range countries are considered to provide essential services and are thus exempt from lockdown rules. However, as countries grapple to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on infrastructure and economies, the ability of rangers to effectively work is being compromised by additional responsibilities, salary cuts and disruption of essential supplies and equipment.

More than half of respondents from protected areas outside Nepal indicated they have been asked to take on wider duties since the outbreak of COVID-19, including border control and staffing community health checkpoints. Rangers in 23% of protected areas also reported taking salary cuts.

Key supplies, equipment, and maintenance has been disrupted in almost 60% of protected areas, while increased constraints in filing legal cases against offenders were reported by 40% of respondents. Where they had been occurring previously, community engagement activities have essentially stopped around the surveyed protected areas.

All of these factors mean that the work of rangers, critical guardians of protected areas, is becoming more difficult.

Investing in tiger protected areas is an investment in ecosystems that millions of people depend on. But this is not the only case for investing in protected areas and the people who manage them.

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics. We must curb the high-risk trade and consumption of wildlife, and halt deforestation and land conversion — and to do that, we need protected areas; they are an essential buffer between zoonotic disease pools and human populations.

That's why we urge governments to ensure funding levels remain or are increased in protected areas across Asia.

Stuart Chapman leads WWF's Tigers Alive Initiative.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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