In 2010, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued bad news: The world tiger population had hit an all-time low. Poaching and habitat loss had taken their toll. There were just 3,200 tigers left in the wild, about half as many as there had been a decade before.
Now there’s good news: Tigers could be making a comeback. There are currently about 4,000 tigers worldwide. In July, India announced that its tiger population had reached nearly 3,000. That’s a 30% rise in just four years. India has 70% of the world’s tigers, making it the biggest, and maybe the safest, habitat for the species.
At a press conference in July, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, spoke about the country’s renewed efforts to save tigers. “Once the people of India decide to do something,” he said, “there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results.”
Keeping A Promise
India’s success was years in the making. Since its Wildlife Protection Act became law, in 1972, India has given tigers a high level of protection. Still, by 2006, habitat loss had brought the number of India’s tigers to just 1,411. So the government decided to commit to an even stronger plan of conservation .
The WWF estimates that the number of tigers in the world has dropped by 95% over the past century. In 2010, 13 countries where tigers live made a pledge to double their tiger populations by 2022. India is on track to reach that goal. The animal’s fate depends on other countries reaching it too.
Nilanga Jayasinghe works for the WWF. “We have made significant strides in tiger conservation,” she told TIME for Kids. “But the threats to tigers remain. All 13 range countries need to work together to secure a future for tigers.”
India’s latest tiger count was the work of thousands of wildlife trackers and scientists. They covered 150,000 square miles of tiger habitat, using thousands of cameras to record the animal’s movements. This data has helped India create areas called reserves , where tigers can spread out and hunt. There are about 50 reserves in the country.
It’s when the big cats wander off reserves that trouble starts. India is a country of more than a billion people. “When tigers leave protected areas, they often encounter people and livestock ,” Jayasinghe says. India’s government has been moving villages away from reserves—to protect livestock from hungry tigers, and to prevent villagers from killing tigers out of fear or for revenge.
Most people are willing to move. In India, “there is a lot of national pride surrounding tigers,” says wildlife expert Shari Rodriguez of Clemson University, in South Carolina. “We cannot save wildlife without the cooperation of the people.” Tigers are India’s biggest attraction, she adds. Villagers benefit from jobs in India’s national parks or from selling crafts to tourists.
But challenges remain for tigers all over Asia. They are poached for their skin, and their whiskers and teeth are sold in China as medicine. “They’re still in peril,” Rodriguez says. She draws hope from India’s success: “This is a small, small victory in a long war against extinction.”
Tiger habitats are shrinking. Nearly all of the animal’s historical range is gone.
India and 12 other countries have vowed to step up conservation efforts. Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia have also increased their tiger populations. WWF is working to reintroduce tigers to Cambodia, where the cat was declared extinct in 2016.
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