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That Big Rise in Tiger Numbers? It Was a WWF Fantasy.

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2016

(Photo: Jim Cook/Getty Images)

(Photo: Jim Cook/Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart.com:

Lately, media worldwide have been frothy with happy talk about an unexpected increase in populations of the endangered tiger, with the global count suddenly up from 3,200 to 3,890. The World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum reported the result based on a tally of recent counts by government agencies and conservation groups.

The announcement predictably produced headlines everywhere that tiger populations were on the rise for the first time in 100 years. Even National Geographic and the BBC sang along, in tune: “Tiger Numbers Rise for First Time in a Century.”

There was only one problem: The news was a publicity-friendly confection of nonsense and wishful thinking, unsupported by any published science.

Instead, the timing of the announcement had everything to do with politics: It came the day before the scheduled opening of the Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi, bringing together scientists and political leaders from 13 nations.

That group has committed its member nations to the daunting (and arguably unrealistic) goal of doubling the population of tigers between 2010 and 2022. With half that time elapsed, WWF Senior Vice President Ginette Hemley apparently meant to kick things off with some good news and a key takeaway message for the conference attendees. “When you have high-level political commitments, it can make all the difference,” she said. “When you have well-protected habitat and you control the poaching, tigers will recover. That’s a pretty simple formula. We know it works.”

At various points, Hemley carefully attributed the results to better counting methods, not to an actual increase in tiger numbers. “The tools we are using now are more precise than they were six years ago,” she told The New York Times. But that nuance got lost along the way, as it was perhaps intended to do. The Times headline: “Number of Tigers in the Wild Is Rising, Wildlife Groups Say.”

WWF did not respond to a request to interview Hemley—a policy person who spends most of her time in Washington, D.C. So for a reality check, I phoned a tiger biologist: John Goodrich

, senior tiger program director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.

Two conservation groups released the tiger population report, he said, but “there aren’t really any scientists connected with it, and we don’t know the sources of the data that they’re basing it on—not yet, and I doubt we will.”

Goodrich called the announcement “misleading,” and he isn’t alone in the sentiment. In a joint statement, Wildlife Conservation Society directors K. Ullas Karanth and Dale Miquelle and University of Oxford zoologist Arjun Gopalaswamy said the surveys are leading to “an illusion of success.”

“Glossing over serious methodological flaws, or weak and incomplete data to generate feel-good ‘news’ is a disservice to conservation,” they stated, “because tigers now occupy only 7 percent of their historic range.”

Tiger numbers suffer from “a lot of hype,” Goodrich said. That’s partly because tigers often live in some of the most remote and difficult terrain in the world. An expedition I participated in found tiger pugmarks at 10,000 feet in the Himalayas of Bhutan, at a time when outside biologists refused to believe Bhutanese reports of high-country tigers.

The Bhutanese later proved it with camera-trap images from 13,450 feet.

Goodrich said the 1999 estimate of a worldwide population of 5,000 to 7,000 tigers was “a guesstimate,” and the 2010 count of 3,200 was also just a guess.

“Now our data are much better,” he said, mainly due to improvements in tiger monitoring, camera trapping, and the complex algorithms for inferring total populations from the reliable data. “But there are still only two countries that have comprehensive surveys of tiger habitat: Nepal and Bhutan,” Goodrich said.

Despite his concerns with the WWF report, Goodrich acknowledged some good news, including increases in tiger populations in the Western Ghats mountain range in India, around Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and at the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand.

There is one statistic Goodrich said really should have dominated the headlines: Since 2010, tiger range—as estimated by scientists—has decreased 40 percent. That is, when they went out and looked carefully at designated tiger habitat, they found almost half the time that no tigers lived there. That’s largely because poaching has simply eliminated tigers from some habitats. (A study early this month found that there’s enough empty habitat left to meet the goal of doubling tiger populations by 2022, if governments could get serious about stopping poaching.)

Vietnam is down from a reported 100 tigers at the turn of the century to just five today, and the Ho Chi Minh City–based Thanh Nien News responded to the WWF announcement by noting with alarm that “some traffickers have taken advantage of the Internet, blatantly advertising tiger parts on Facebook.”

Habitat destruction also continues unabated. The host of the New Delhi conference that wrapped up Thursday was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most pro-development, anti-nature prime minister in India’s recent history. He gives lip service to tiger conservation—but with his strong backing, India appears to be going ahead with a road-widening project between the Pench and Kanha Tiger Reserves in central India—the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. That decision goes against the conclusion by a Supreme Court–appointed advisory committee that the project would cause “irreparable damage to a critical wildlife habitat.” Modi’s administration is making such choices everywhere.

So much for happy talk and good publicity. What politicians and conservation activists need to be hearing from the entire world is a loud reminder that continuing on our current course will cause tigers to disappear forever from the wild.

 

15 Responses to “That Big Rise in Tiger Numbers? It Was a WWF Fantasy.”

  1. Johanna van de Woestijne said

    Science writers everywhere seem afraid to write about this misrepresentation (lies) about the scientific data, or is fact checking now dead too? Thank you for writing this.

    • Nobody fact-checks internet stuff, and more and more journalism is moving to the internet. Also the pay is so bad that the people writing these stories often cannot afford the time to check out a story with a second or third source. It’s a sorry state of affairs. I used to write American Scene pieces for Time Magazine in the 1980s–1500-1800 words for $3000. Recently I offered the magazine a piece of about the same length, and then they told me the price: $50. I laughed, and took it elsewhere, but many writers don’t have much choice.

  2. For further reading, here’s a piece I wrote last year about India’s War on Tiger Reserves: https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/the-war-on-indias-tiger-reserves/

    And here’s one about India’s program for voluntary relocations of forest communities https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/they-gave-up-their-home-for-tigers-would-you/

  3. It’s unusual to have four top tiger field biologists publicly criticize a major conservation group (and potential funding source). So I should publish their entire statement, with apologies for any typographical weirdness:

    15-4-2016

    STATEMENT OF CONCERN BY TIGER BIOLOGISTS

    On Sunday, April 10th, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Global Tiger Forum (GTF) issued a report stating that the world’s wild tiger population was on the rise, and on track for a doubling in a decade. We do not find this report1 and its implications scientifically convincing.

    1. Having devoted years of our lives to trying to understand and save wild tigers, we believe their conservation should be guided by the best possible science. Using flawed survey methodologies can lead to incorrect conclusions, an illusion of success, and slackening of conservation efforts, when in reality grave concern is called for. Glossing over serious methodological flaws, or weak and incomplete data to generate feel-good ‘news’ is a disservice to conservation, because tigers now occupy only 7% of their historic range 2. A recent World Conservation Union (IUCN) assessment3 showed 40% habitat loss in the last decade, and a spike in poaching pressure in many regions.
    Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao PDR and China have virtually lost viable tiger populations in recent years. This is not a time for conservationists to take their eyes off the ball and pat each other on the back.

    2. There is no doubt that wildlife managers in parts of India and even in specific reserves in South East Asia and Russia have made commendable conservation efforts, leading to recoveries in specific tiger populations. India has invested massively in recovering several tiger populations2 over the last four decades. This has been possible because of
    strong political, administrative and public support rarely matched anywhere else.

    3. Such sporadic tiger recoveries should be monitored using statistically robust camera trap or DNA surveys. Rigorous scientific studies in India, Thailand and Russia4-6 demonstrate this can indeed be done. But these studies also indicate that tiger recovery rates are slow and not likely to attain levels necessary for the doubling of wild tiger numbers within a decade4-6.

    4. Estimates of tiger numbers for large landscapes, regions and countries currently in vogue in the global media for a number of countries are largely derived from weak methodologies7-9. They are sometimes based on extrapolations from tiger spoor (tracks and droppings) surveys, or spoor surveys alone. While spoor surveys can be useful for knowing where tigers occur, they are not useful for reliably counting their numbers. Translating spoor counts to tiger numbers poses several statistical problems that remain unresolved9, which can lead to fundamentally flawed claims of changes in tiger numbers7-9.

    5. Source populations of tigers that occur at high densities and which are likely to produce ‘surplus’ animals that can disperse and expand populations now occupy less than 10% of the remaining 1.2 million square kilometers of tiger habitat2. Almost 70% of wild

    tigers survive within these source sites. They are recovering slowly, only in some reserves4-6 where protection has improved. Outside these source sites lie vast ‘sink landscapes’, which are continuing to lose tigers and habitat due to hunting as well as rural and developmental pressures.

    6. With the above considerations in view, even taking these putative tiger numbers at face value, simple calculations show that doubling of the world’s tigers in ten years as hoped for in the report1 is not a realistic proposition. Assuming 70-90% of wild tigers are in source populations with slow growth4-6, such an anticipated doubling of global tiger numbers would demand an increase between 364-831% in these sink landscapes. We believe this to be an unlikely scenario.

    7. Rather than engaging in these tiger number games that distract them from reality, conservationists must now focus on enhancing and expanding recovery and monitoring of source populations, while protecting their remaining habitat and their linkages, all the while being guided by the best of science.

    K. Ullas Karanth, Ph.D
    Director for Science Asia-Wildlife Conservation Society ukaranth@wcs.org

    Dale Miquelle, Ph.D.
    Director, Russia Program-Wildlife Conservation Society dmiquelle@wcs.org

    John Goodrich, Ph.D.
    Senior Director, Tiger Program-Panthera jgoodrich@panthera.org

    Arjun Gopalaswamy, Ph.D.
    Research Associate, Zoology, University of Oxford, UK arjungswamy@gmail.com

    Citations

    1. WWF. Global wild tiger population increases, but still a long way to go. 2016. Available: http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?uNewsID=265197
    2. Walston J, Robinson JG, Bennett EL, Breitenmoser U, da Fonseca GAB, Goodrich J, et al. Bringing the tiger back from the brink—the six percent solution. PLoS Biol. 2010;8: e1000485.
    3. Goodrich J, Lynam A, Miquelle D, Wibisono H, Kawanishi K, Pattanavibool A, Htun, S., Tempa, T., Karki, J., Jhala, Y., Karanth, K U.. Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T15955A50659951. 2015. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015- 2.RLTS.T15955A50659951.en
    4. Karanth KU, Nichols JD, Kumar NS, Hines JE. Assessing tiger population dynamics using photographic capture-recapture sampling. Ecology. 2006;87: 2925–2937.
    5. Duangchantrasiri S, Umponjan M, Simcharoen S, Pattanavibool A, Chaiwattana S, Maneerat S, et

    al. Dynamics of a low-density tiger population in Southeast Asia in the context of improved law enforcement. Conserv Biol. 2016; DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12655. doi:10.1111/cobi.12655
    6 Miquelle DG, Smirnov EN, Zaumyslova OY, Soutyrina S V, Johnson DH. Population dynamics of Amur tiger (P. t. altaica, Temminck 1884) in Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik: 1966-2012. Integr Zool. 2015;10: 315–328.
    7 Karanth KU, Nichols JD, Seidensticker J, Dinerstein E, Smith JLD, McDougal C, Johhnsingh, AJT, Chundawat, R, Thapar, V. Science deficiency in conservation practice: The monitoring of tiger populations in India. Anim Conserv. 2003;6: 141–146.
    8 Karanth KU. India’s Tiger Counts: The Long March to Reliable Science. Econ Polit Weekly. 2011;XLVI: 22–25.
    9 Gopalaswamy AM, Delampady M, Karanth KU, Kumar NS, Macdonald DW. An examination of index-calibration experiments: counting tigers at macroecological scales. Yoccoz N, editor. Methods Ecol Evol. 2015;6: 1055–1066. doi:10.1111/2041-210X.12351

  4. Reblogged this on Great Cats of the "World".

  5. Asia Murphy said

    I would just like to mention that it’s been said that the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (Thailand) tiger population is increasing; however, in the paper that led to that claim, the authors stated in the discussion:

    “Overall, our results do not provide unambigous evidence of an increase in the tiger population size at HKK between 2006 and 2012” (Duangchantrasiri et al 2015 Dynamics of a low-density tiger population in Southeast Asia in the context of improved law enforcement, pg. 8)

  6. gregmccann said

    I really doubt that Vietnam has any tigers at all, let alone 5. Same for Laos and Cambodia. Totally gone from those 3 countries and in big trouble in Sumatra.

    • Sheema Abdul Aziz said

      WWF-Cambodia already released a press statement confirming that tigers there are now functionally extinct in the wild. Tigers in Malaysia are also getting completely hammered by poaching – and, to a lesser extent, road development. Things are definitely not looking good.

  7. Angelica Ibbotson said

    Whether or not tiger numbers are going up or not, one fact is indisputable – tribal people, who have lived alongside tigers for generations, are the ones bearing the brunt of tiger conservation in India. They are being forcibly evicted from their lands, even though in the first place to allow tribal people to live inside the reserve the tiger numbers have shot up much faster than the national average. For more information and to take action check out Survival International’s website http://www.survivalinternational.org/about/tigers

  8. Reblogged this on Tiger Tales and commented:
    “WWF appears to inflate tiger numbers for political expediency” — Doc Antle

  9. Carroll Moulton said

    The recent announcement by WWF and Global Tiger Forum needs to be examined carefully. 1) No backup in the form of a detailed report or a specific account of the methodology employed in the estimate has been published. 2) The 2014 all-India estimate of 2,226 tigers has been mechanically adopted without question or comment. 3) The NCTA stonewalling style in India has been imitated wholesale by WWF/GTF–after the announcement of a 30% increase in January 2015, the NTCA declined to publish a detailed report (as it had done in 2006 and 2010), and it never made available the 1,500+ photographs it claimed to have taken of individual tigers in the course of the estimate. In short, Dr. Rajesh Gopal, then Member Secretary of the NTCA, behaved far more like a politician than a scientist–and he seems to be doing it again as a high-ranking official of the GTF.
    Our experiences over the past 27 years in Kanha for 3 months a year — not to mention the recent tragic events of tiger losses in Pench (M.P.) and the recent poaching update by WPSI — make us very doubtful indeed of the WWF/GTF/NTCA estimates, and it is very peculiar that the BBC and National Geographic would accept such claims so readily–particularly considering the objections of such respected experts as Ullas Karanth.

    Dr. Carroll Moulton
    Mr. Ernie J. Hulsey
    (authors of “Kanha Tuger Reserve: Portrait of an Indian National Park: (1999, 2002)

  10. Nic said

    I just returned from a week in Pench, and the road widening project is disturbing. At places along the road it appears that it’ll be as wide as an eight lane super highway. It also appears that they’re putting in overpasses (?) as well in a few key villages.

    If one has a chance, pick up Valmik Thapar’s most recent work: Saving Wild India: A Blueprint for Change.

  11. […] claims of a sharp increase in tiger numbers were just wishful thinking—and that tigers have lost 93 percent of their historic range, with a 40 percent decline just […]

  12. UPDATE June 28 2016 Here’s a podcast interview with Ullas Karanth about tiger science: Podcast link: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/tiger-tiger-being-tracked/

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