I recently visited the Western Ghat mountains in South India with my colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). We drove on small paths through the teak forests in search of wildlife. You can't help but feel a stirring in your soul to see peacocks, elephants, gaur, sloth bears, wild dogs and tigers in their native habitat.
One of the best moments of the trip came the last morning as we drove in the early hours of the day. That's when we saw a large female tiger walking on the service road ahead of us. We followed her for about 15 minutes, as she marked her territory and stopped to listen to the forest from time to time. Then she was gone. It is amazing to see how a 350-pound animal can vanish into the shrubs in seconds.
Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
My mind can't stop thinking about that one tiger. With the big cats dwindling in numbers across their habitat, her story teaches us a lot about why some tigers are still surviving. She is symbolic of successful efforts that will help us ensure that this magnificent and fierce species does not blink out of existence. That's a bold statement, but I truly believe we can achieve this conservation success.
The tiger I observed lives in Nagarahole, where we have developed a formula that, if replicated, will help to ensure that tigers do not go extinct. There, the government is truly committed, science informs action, and partners work together behind long-term investments. With these elements in play, Nagarahole has experienced a 300 percent increase in its tiger population over the past two decades.
WCS announced during the holidays that tigers are roaring back in three landscapes due to this type of effort. We announced good news in India and Thailand where the tiger numbers are increasing, and in Russia, where the government is putting teeth behind anti-poaching efforts.
The successes are much-needed good news as tiger numbers worldwide continue to hover at all-time lows due to the combined threat of poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction. WCS estimates that only 3,200 tigers exist in the wild. We attribute the good news in these three key landscapes to better law enforcement, protection of additional habitat, and strong government partnerships.
The encouraging results begin in southwestern India where WCS research and conservation efforts that began 25 years ago show a major rebound of tigers in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka State. More than individuals have been identified to date from camera trap photos during the last decade in this mountainous landscape. In Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, tigers have actually reached saturation levels, with surplus young tigers spilling out into forest-reserves and dispersing using secured forest corridors through a landscape that holds over a million human beings.
The combination of strict government-led anti-poaching patrols, voluntary relocation of villages away from tiger habitats, and the vigilant local presence of WCS conservation partners watching over tigers has led to the rebound of big-cat populations and their prey. In newer tiger reserves, including Bhadra and Kudremukh, numbers have increased by as much as 50 percent after years of neglect and chronic poaching were tackled.
In Thailand, WCS conservationists report a tiger comeback in Huai Kha Khaeng (HKK) Wildlife Sanctuary -- a 2,700 square-kilometer (1,042 square mile) protected area in the vast Western Forest Complex. WCS has worked closely with Thai authorities to increase enforcement and anti-poaching patrols in the region.
In 2011, a notorious poaching ring was busted, and in 2012 the gang leaders were given prison sentences of up to five years -- the most severe punishments for wildlife poaching in Thailand's history. Since their capture, there have been no known tiger or elephant poaching incidents in the park. Tiger numbers have been rising steadily in the park since 2007, with a record 50-plus tigers counted last year.
In Russia, government officials are drafting a new law that will make the transport, sale, or possession of endangered animals a criminal offense rather than just a civil crime. This will close a loophole that allows poachers to claim they found endangered species like tigers already dead and thus avoid stiffer criminal penalties for poaching.
Russia has made progress in creating additional protected areas for tigers, too, declaring a new corridor -- the Central Ussuri Wildlife Refuge -- on October 18. The new refuge acts as a linkage between the Sikhote-Alin tiger population in Russia, which is the main population of Amur tigers, and some of the best tiger habitat in China's Heilongjiang Province in the Wandashan Mountains.
The creation of the new refuge ensures that tigers have the capacity to move across the international border between Russian and China in this region. WCS first identified this key corridor in 1999 after conducting joint wildlife surveys with Chinese and Russian scientists there.
Tigers are clearly fighting for their very existence, but it's important to know that there is hope. Victories like these give us the resolve to continue to battle for these awe-inspiring big cats. While the news about tigers has been bleak, these developments clearly show how smart strategies and strong partnerships are ensuring that tigers are saved for centuries to come. We know we can and must replicate these successes in other parts of the tiger's range.
To learn more about the Wildlife Conservation Society, visit www.wcs.org.