They may be stealthy, brawny, and at the top of the food chain, but within the next ten years, tigers in the wild could go extinct. Their survival—and the health of the planet’s ecosystem—may hinge on the ability of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, World Bank, and other partners to successfully unite conservationists, scientists, and the diverse cultures and politics of 13 countries.
SCBI and partners founded the Global Tiger Initiative in June 2008 based on the idea that effective conservation relies on quality science, political will, and a change in value systems. As part of the project, SCBI researchers are using their expertise to help leaders from 13 tiger-range countries determine what they can do to quickly reverse the plight of tigers. Through these efforts, the initiative aims to double the number of tigers in the wild by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.
“This is the tipping point for the survival of wild tigers,” said Francisco Dallmeier, head of SCBI’s Conservation Education and Sustainability Center. “We are helping the tiger range countries build capacity to meet the challenge and to implement individual national action plans. The stakes are high.”
Although each country has its own set of challenges making tiger conservation difficult, the primary threats to the animals—habitat changes and poaching—are common to many of the Asian countries where tigers live. These countries are working to bolster the local economy through infrastructure development that promotes the conservation of tiger habitat. By facilitating dialogue among the tiger range countries, SCBI researchers and partners are helping key decision makers draw on each other’s experiences to develop best practices.
To successfully facilitate this dialogue, the Global Tiger Initiative has held a number of international programs. In March, SCBI convened the first conservation practitioners course in India with representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand and Russia. The purpose of the course was for participants to gain a holistic approach to tiger conservation, learning new ecological, social, biological, economic and political skills to address tiger conservation issues, and to build a regional conservation network. And last month SCBI hosted a week-long Executive Leadership Forum with 37 senior officials and policymakers from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam to help them to develop the necessary skills to implement practices and policies necessary to double the wild tiger population by 2022. These efforts will culminate in a heads of state summit in Russia in September, when top leaders from each country will commit to putting into place the action plan their representatives developed.
“It is heartening to see so many people from so many different countries come together to save wild tigers,” said Chuck Lydeard, SCBI’s program managing director for the initiative. “The participants at these meetings are really working hard to strengthen skills in the development, implementation and evaluation of their strategies. They are well on their way to generating the political will necessary to double the number of tigers in the wild.”
Tigers require large areas of land with forest cover and water and that can support large prey, such as spotted deer and wild boards. They live across Asia, from the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Indochina to the temperate oak forest of the Amur River Valley in eastern Russia. There are less than 3,500 tigers left in the wild.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute has a long history of significant contributions to tiger conservation and tiger research. As early as 1969, John Seidensticker, head of SCBI’s Conservation Ecology Center, helped found a tiger ecology project to use new technologies to track tigers and learn about their behavior and interaction with their environment. His research since then, along with the work of other SCBI scientists and conservation biologists, is helping to inform the action plans for tiger-range countries.
“We’re trying to change trajectories and look for best practices,” Seidensticker said. “To do that, we’re bringing some of the best minds in our SCBI world to bear on this critical problem while working from a cooperative platform that is the Global Tiger Initiative.”