Six years after 13 countries pledged to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2020, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) declared tigers “functionally extinct” in Cambodia on Wednesday.
According to WWF, the last wild tiger in the country was observed in 2007 thanks to a hidden camera in the Mondulkiri Protected Forest. Cambodia, one of the 13 countries in the world where tigers live, has approved a plan to reintroduce tigers into the Mondulkiri protected forest in eastern Cambodia, the Guardian reports. “We want two male tigers and five to six females tigers for the start,” said Keo Omaliss, director of the department of wildlife and biodiversity at the Forestry Administration, according to the Guardian. “This is a huge task.”
Though it may be a huge task, the announcement comes a week after researchers said in a study that forest loss has been lower than expected in tiger habitats, so there is enough space for tigers to come back from the brink of extinction, if habitats are preserved. Habitats are critical for any species, said Anup Joshi, one of the study’s authors, “and especially so with tigers, which need large areas to survive.”
Tigers are solitary animals apart from the connection between mother and cub. They traverse large territories and their size is determined mostly by the availability of prey. Joshi, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, told ThinkProgress that out of the 76 conserved landscapes where tigers live, 29 were recognized as areas where tiger populations could double.
“Understanding this factor was hard in the past because of a lack of data and resolution of data,” said Joshi. But thanks to new easily accessible satellite data, researchers understand habitat stress like never before. They can even track logging or agricultural expansion almost in real time.
Less than 8 percent of global forested habitat was lost from 2001–2014, according to the study. Joshi said it shows overall habitat conservation efforts are working, though noted Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia showed “a lot of loss.” The majority of tiger forest habitat loss was driven by the conversion of natural forest to plantations for agricultural commodities such as palm oil. Forest clearing since 2001 did away with habitat that could have supported an estimated 400 tigers, a devastating finding since the global tiger population is fewer than 3,500.
Though the tiger is still in peril, Eric Dinerstein, director of Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions at Resolve, said their future could improve for multiple reasons. Dinerstein, also an author of the habitat study, told ThinkProgress scientists have found that there are only two kinds of genetically different tigers: the island tiger that is extinct everywhere but in Sumatra, and the mainland tiger that lives across Asia. Consequently, there is a bigger pool of tigers available for reintroduction, and that reintroduction is likely to work.
Moreover, countries are committed to bringing back the tiger. Next week, officials from the 13 countries where tigers live will meet in Delhi to discuss global goals. Joshi said he’ll pitch the use of habitat tracking technology available online thanks to Global Forest Watch for conservation purposes. And in the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week it will improve the regulation and monitoring of the country’s tiger population. The U.S. move could prove significant because it has an estimated 5,000 tigers in captivity — 95 percent of which are owned by individuals. It has no system to monitor exactly how many captive tigers there are, who owns them, when they’re sold and traded, and what happens to their parts when they die, WWF said.
Another reason to be hopeful about for tigers’ fate is that India’s tiger population has grown even though the country has dense and sprawling agriculture, Dinerstein said. And while governance may be an issue in Cambodia, he said Nepal shows that tourism and revenue sharing with locals creates disincentives to poaching. So doubling the tiger population is more than possible. “I think we are going to get there,” he said.