In 1900, Asia was home to over 100,000 tigers. Fewer than 4,000 remain today.
They are not being driven to extinction by disease, natural disaster, or through some flaw of evolution that left them ill-suited for their environment. The tiger population has declined more than 90% in 100 years due to overhunting and habitat destruction by humans.
But one tiger population at the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (HKK) in Thailand has been able to increase its numbers in recent years thanks to dedicated conservation efforts and strong support from the government. A recent report in Conservation Biology is the product of 8 years of investigation and is the first long-term study of tiger populations in this region of the world.
Despite the fact that many Asian governments have set up protected reserves for tigers, they are still a target for poachers. Certain Asian folk medicines believe that tiger whiskers, bones, and claws have special healing properties (of which there is absolutely no scientific evidence). Furs from tigers are also sought after by collectors, strictly for decoration.
Because of the demand for these parts is so high, wildlife crime is incredibly profitable. Poachers often have more sophisticated equipment and more firearms than the people protecting the animals, and the punishment for poaching in many countries isn't severe enough to discourage hunters.
Fed up with this ineffective approach at saving tigers from extinction, officials at the HKK, the Thai government, and the Wildlife Conservation Society banded together to take a stand against poaching.
Not only did they take a firmer stance against poaching tigers, but they also extended protection to the animals that the tigers eat. Without this important step to make sure they have enough food available, a growing tiger population would just result in large numbers of them starving to death.
Since this effort began a decade ago, the population has been monitored by a fleet of 200 motion-activated trap cameras throughout the tigers' range. The group, now 90 members strong, is not only seeing higher survival rates than before, and other tigers are joining their numbers.
"The protection effort is paying off as the years have progressed, as indicated by the increase in recruitment, and we expect the tiger population to increase even more rapidly in the years to come," lead author Somphot Duangchantrasiri explained in a news release.
Through all of the data collected, the researchers were able to study the rate of the population's growth, survival, population density, and other factors that support the effectiveness of their conservation efforts.
While this report brings some much-needed good news about this group's progress, officials cannot loosen their grip quite yet. As the tigers continue to rebound in number, their prey needs a chance to catch up too. Officials believe it will be another 10-15 years before these tigers will have a comfortably sustainable food source.
"This collaboration between WCS and the Thai government used the most up-to-date methodologies for counting tigers," co-author Ullas Karanth added. "It's gratifying to see such rigorous science being used to inform critical conservation management decisions."
Conservation stories that bring good news are becoming fewer and farther between, making progress like this all the more inspiring. Stories like this one prove that protecting endangered species is not a lost cause and great things can happen when dedicated workers and supportive governments come together to tell poachers that enough is enough.