Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Tiger Conservation in the Wild in Asia

To conserve the tiger, the top carnivore in Asian forests, the methods we use and the approaches we take to understand their ecological needs and conservation must encompass the large spatial scales at which they live their lives.

Our understanding of their ecological needs has been restrained by the size of our study areas, or at best the reserves where we study them, and thus, a holistic picture of these top carnivores living in larger landscapes does not emerge, resulting in an incomplete understanding of their needs and the conservation actions we must take to secure their future in the wild. No one person or organization alone has the resources to understand and secure the future of this splendid great predator in the wild.

Securing a future for wild tiger populations requires developing ways and means to establish and maintain the socio-economic and scientific partnerships that are necessary to understand and sustain wild tigers at the large landscape scales at which they live.

As top carnivores in the landscapes where they live, tigers play a key role in structuring and preserving biodiversity in Asian forests. They are what conservationists commonly refer to as an umbrella species. Securing a future for wild tigers is an essential component in stemming the loss of and maintaining biodiversity in many Asian forests.


With the guidance of Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, the Smithsonian Institution was one of the first international organizations to answer the call when the tigers was declared endangered in 1968 and established the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project in 1972.

This project produced a cadre of conservation leaders and developed a deep understanding of tiger behavioral ecology and conservation actions necessary to maintain tigers in those habitats fragments where tiger still live in Nepal. This has proven a highly successful strategy. See "Building An Arc" in Smithsonian Magazine.

In the early 1990s, tiger experts realized that unless some innovative new approaches were takes we would soon lose wild tigers from all Asian landscape, even those where there had been some moderate success in their conservation in the past.

Grounded in the philosophy that sound science is necessary for good conservation policy and action, the National Zoo has supported an innovative and experimental approach to securing a future for wild tigers based on the premise that partnerships are a key to making top carnivore conservation science and action effective.

Save The Tiger Fund

Our vehicle to encourage and support these partnerships is the Save The Tiger Fund (STF), a joint project of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the ExxonMobil Corporation. Over the last 11 years the STF has provided 28 percent of all the on-the-ground NGO funding for tiger conservation science and action in 13 of the 14 tiger range states.

The STF investment strategy for wild tiger conservation is guided by the Save The Tiger Fund Council. Senior Scientist John Seidensticker serves as Council chairman. Dr. Seidensticker was founding principal investigator of the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project. His professional career has focused on understanding and encouraging landscape patterns and conditions where tigers can persist. The National Zoo makes Dr. Seidensticker’s time and expertise available to guide the STF Council as an essential element in our major contribution and commitment towards securing a future for wild tigers.

When the operations with the Save The Tiger Fund began in 1995, it supported the development and publication of a new vision about how to think about saving tigers on their home ground: A Framework for Identifying High Priority Areas and Actions for the Conservation of Tigers in the Wild. A follow-on report, Setting Priorities for the Conservation and Recovery of Wild Tigers: 2005-2015, tracked changes over the last decade. With their powerful images and quantities, evidence and narrative, these documents are framing a new vision and setting a new course in saving wild tigers.

A New Vision

This vision is grounded in sustainability, landscapes, bioregions, and in tiger ecology. It is promoting activities that result in a reduction in the numbers of tigers killed for consumption and about activities to promote human-tiger coexistence.

The National Zoo recognizes and supports this need and its value. It is based on the working hypothesis that for tigers to survive over the long-term, populations of tigers and their prey must be managed at a landscape scale that includes core areas of protection, buffer zones, dispersal corridors, and the restoration of degraded lands, coupled with initiatives through which the conservation of tigers directly or indirectly meets the needs of local people.

This ecological approach to conserving tigers recognizes not only their genetic distinctiveness across their range but also behavioral, demographic, and ecological distinctiveness. It recognizes the value of tigers as top predators in ecosystems and their role as “umbrella species” for conservation of other species and ecological processes.

In short, the conservation question is: How do we link up space with adequate prey and other critical resources, including some separation from human disturbances, for about 100 adult, reproducing females in each of the 20 or so global priority tiger landscapes or Tiger Conservation Landscapes, TCLs? And do the local folks feel good about it or at least see some value coming to them from this effort?

The principle conference that addressed the future of wild tiger was organized by Dr. Seidensticker and his colleagues as Tigers: 2000, a symposium held at the Zoological Society of London in 1997. Based on the symposium and with 79 co-authors Dr. Seidensticker published Riding the Tiger: Tiger Conservation in Human-dominated Landscapes in 1999. Riding the Tiger serves as the primary reference guiding tiger conservation efforts today.

The Human Dimension

When it comes to tigers, we, as conservation biologists, have two tasks in our quest to keep these splendid great predators in the neighborhood. We have to tease the risks and opportunities apart and devise the tactics and strategies of coexistence between tigers and people.

We have to provide decision-makers with viable alternatives to dead tigers through road maps that make landscapes with tigers worth more than landscapes without tigers, this is the scientific and engineering side of the conservation equation. We must also provide the vision of why this should matter at all to anyone, the metaphysical side of the conservation equation.

Stephen Kellert reminds us that “Support for endangered species conservation will emerge when people believe that this effort enhances the prospects of a more materially, emotional, and spiritually worthwhile life for themselves, their families, and communities. This may not constitute a particularly easy task but it may be unavoidable.”

When the Save The Tiger Fund was initiated, there was a focus on the activity—“saving the tiger”—rather than on a result “supporting sustainable wild tiger populations in their significant habitats.” This was the source of some confusion with our potential partners and even among ourselves.

Through the symposium in London, the STF Year of the Tiger Conference in 1998 in Dallas and in the book Riding the Tiger emphasis has been shifted from an activity-driven to a results-driven agenda seeking to secure a future for wild tigers in their significant habitats.

Consider the imagery created by Steve Humphrey and Brad Stith in their “conservation is a three-legged stool” metaphor: “The conservation of species and undamaged habitats is like a three-legged stool. Each leg is necessary but not sufficient. The legs of the conservation stool are sustainable use of natural resources, species recovery, and habitat preservation. Conservation can progress by focusing on each of these, defining their limits, developing improvements and preventing dysfunction.”

Save The Tiger Fund experience is showing that we must add a fourth leg to the stool: This fourth leg in the conservation stool is the human dimension because we simply will not progress unless we take this into our formulations. This is the essential component in securing the endangered spaces needed by this magnificent, endangered top carnivore.

Symbols of Recovery

At the National Zoo and through the Save The Tiger Fund, we have focused the central mission in the activity of tiger conservation into saving wild tigers. Further, we see that wild tigers can be symbols of ecosystems in recovery rather than as symbols of ecosystems in decline. This is our strategic objective. Now we work to identify the barriers to achieving this and then break these down into technically practical and politically feasible scales.

Dr. Ullas Karanth, author of The Way of the Tiger and National Zoo Research Associate, put the concept this way: “...vision, persistence, thinking at the right social and spatial scales, and constructive dialogue are keys to the tiger’s future.” There isn’t a conservationist more committed to bringing good science to tiger conservation than Dr. Karanth, but he recognizes fully the importance of right vision and knows the tiger will be lost without right vision, no matter how good the science.
After 30-odd years of seeking to save wild tigers we know there is no one way, no silver bullet. There will be different roadmaps for different bioregions and contexts because such is the nature of the social and natural landscapes of Asia. After 30-odd years of trying, we have learned that the solution has to fit the site and we must understand the tiger's needs in each tiger landscape.

Then we must translated our vision into shared understanding and commonality of purpose with our partners and ask: Have we communicated strategy, and linked strategy to performance measures? Have we set targets? Do we have a feedback system relative to strategy? That is where we are focusing our creative energy at the National Zoo in seeking to secure a future for wild tigers. We cannot achieve this unless our zoo visitors join in our effort. Saving tigers takes all of us working together in partnerships.

The Challenge, the Test

The challenge of saving tigers is at the heart of conservation. To paraphrase Marjorie Stoneman Douglas: Saving the tiger is a test. If we pass, we get to keep the planet.