The wild tiger population is not doing so well. The big cats have been the victims of habitat destruction and hunting. And those that are left often struggle to find prey because those animals have been overhunted, as well. In the last two centuries of so, tigers have lost 93 percent of their historical range, and scientists estimate the species numbers only 3,000 to 4,000 animals in the wild.
About 70 percent of the tiger population can be found crammed into spaces that total just 7 percent of the animal’s current range, in places scattered across Asia. One of those sites, the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, is in eastern Thailand. In 2006, officials working with the Wildlife Conservation Society established a systematic and intense program of foot patrols in the sanctuary to combat poaching of the tigers and their prey. The efforts appear to be helping, concludes a studypublished February 5 in Conservation Biology.
Somphot Duangchantrasiri of Thailand’s Department of National Parks and colleagues monitored the sanctuary’s tiger population with camera traps from 2005 through 2012. Over that time, the team identified about two to three dozen tigers every year. Using these sightings, the researchers estimate that the park is home to more than 50 tigers, making this the largest tiger population outside of the Indian subcontinent.The researchers weren’t able to detect any huge increase in the sanctuary’s tiger population following the implementation of the foot patrols. But there was some evidence that the patrols are having a positive effect. For one, the big cat population isn’t decreasing. And incidences of poaching, of both tigers and their prey, appear to be declining at least a little.
But the study also shows why the Global Tiger Initiative’s goal, set in 2011, of doubling the wild tiger population by 2022 is nigh impossible. The Thailand tigers were given good protections in 2006, and within seven years, the population remained stable or perhaps increased a little. But evidence from tiger reserves in Nepal and India suggests it takes 10 to 15 years of protection for prey species to recover and reach optimal densities. Only then can female tigers find enough prey to start surviving on smaller territories, making room for more females and more tigers. And that’s not a fast thing since tigers have only two or three cubs at a time, and those young tigers won’t start reproducing for at least five years.
Protecting tigers is necessary, and it may save the species. But don’t expect the situation to improve any faster than biology will allow.