Instantly recognizable by their unique fur, the tiger is the largest of the “big cats” that still exist in the wild. If conservation efforts do not improve, however, the tiger species as a whole may, within our own lifetimes, completely cease to be. The total world population of this beautiful cat is estimated to have fallen from roughly 5,000 in 1998 to only approximately 3,500 tigers still surviving in the wild today. This is an all-time low and is actually lower than the number currently in captivity. This is in thanks partially to poachers looking to sell the tigers’ skins and other body parts. Of those tigers that do survive, only about 1,000 of them are females capable of breeding. The sadly dropping numbers have not stalled nor shown signs of any real improvement for decades despite the millions of dollars being spent on conservation efforts every year.
A study just recently released by the Wildlife Conservation Society offers a small bit of hope, however. The study, published this past Tuesday (September 14, 2010) in the peer-reviewed journal, PLoS Biology, says that conservation efforts might actually have a better shot at success if conservationists would stop diversifying their efforts so much and instead focus on select key sites throughout the world. These so-called “source sites” make up only roughly 6% of the current available habitat yet they are where most of the tiger population (almost 70% in fact) is living and, most importantly, breeding. There are a total of 42 such sites so far identified and conservationists from The Wildlife Conservation Society are currently already at work in more than half of them. These sites are the best breeding grounds for the next generation of tigers. They are scattered throughout several countries, with eighteen of them falling within India’s borders. Malaysia contains the second highest amount with eight and Russia is home to six of the sites.
Securing these sites is estimated by the Wildlife Conservation Society to cost less than twice that of the current conservation efforts and yield far greater results. The study states that “…the recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70% increase in the world’s tiger population.” That means that, if successful, population recovery at these sites alone could result in an increase of over 2,000 tigers in the wild. This increase by itself would mean restoring more than the number of tigers lost within the last ten years. While this is only one piece of the puzzle in trying to save the world’s tigers from extinction, it is one that could prove to be significantly important.