Globally, tigers are considered an endangered species. Only six of the nine tiger subspecies that once existed remain, and the South China tiger is thought to be nearly or entirely extinct in the wild. The Sumatran subspecies is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, and the Amur is listed as endangered. All tigers are protected under CITES Appendix I.
It is generously estimated that only 3,900 tigers exist in the wild, including approximately 200 to 400 Sumatran tigers and 360 Amur tigers. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan for Sumatran and Amur tigers, which works to responsibly breed and manage tiger populations within AZA-accredited institutions throughout North America.
The goal of the SSP is to sustain a population of the three manage tiger subspecies—Amur, Sumatran and Malayan—that is genetically healthy enough to maintain a high genetic diversity for the next 100 years.
There are numerous threats to tiger survival, including human-animal conflict driven by human overpopulation, poaching for use in traditional medicines and the destruction and fragmentation of habitat. Human-animal conflict stems from two primary issues. The first is a rise in agriculture and overgrazing by farmers, which drives away typical prey for tigers and forces them to hunt livestock.
The second is urban sprawl and the encroachment of towns and cities into tiger territories, which displaces the cats and leads to killing by humans provoked by fear. These conflicts are not unique to Asia and are common as humans encroach upon the territory of large predators around the world. In the U.S., cougars in the western parts of the country have faced similar threats.
The demand for tiger bones and other body parts used in traditional Asian medicines is also contributing to the tiger’s decline. Despite the work of many governments and scientists to decrease demand by educating the public about other sources for these “medical” compounds, an illegal market for tiger parts persists. In some areas, tiger farming has become a profitable illicit market.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Work With Tigers
For decades, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists have studied tigers to understand their behavioral ecology and the most effective ways to protect them. They support efforts to stop poaching and trafficking, reduce human-tiger conflict, improve management practices in tiger habitats and protect Asian forests where tigers live.
In collaboration with USAID and local partners in Bangladesh, SCBI scientists are collecting and analyzing a wide range of field data on tigers, prey and mangrove habitat, including through camera-trap studies to estimate tiger populations. To support and assist management of this project, rangers are trained and given equipment to patrol the forest to prevent poaching and mitigate human-animal conflict.
Smithsonian efforts to save tigers began in 1972 with the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project. In the 1990s scientists began approaching tiger conservation as a complex problem stretching across borders, requiring the cooperation of many partners.
In 2008, the Smithsonian Institution joined the World Bank Group and the Global Environmental Facility to launch the Global Tiger Initiative, designed to stabilize and restore wild tiger populations to save the species from extinction. As a member of the GTI, SCBI scientists work with policy makers and practitioners across Asia and around the world to save tigers.
At the Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2010, leaders of 13 tiger-range countries met with international science and conservation experts, including SCBI scientists, to do what had never been done before: create a comprehensive strategy to save tigers. At the Summit, they adopted the first-of-its-kind Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP). Simultaneously, SCBI staff worked with individual countries to develop National Tiger Recovery Priorities.
As part of the GTRP, the Smithsonian prepared a Global Support Program in Capacity Building and Knowledge Sharing through regional training programs in Asia and Core Learning Programs on conservation best practices. They have held courses and workshops for frontline practitioners in protected tiger-range areas, training hundreds of rangers, foresters and habitat managers to adopt the latest conservation and Spatial Monitoring and Report Tool (SMART) patrolling practices, with a focus on preserving and increasing wild tiger populations.
SMART patrol training courses have been held in Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia and Malaysia. Using state-of-the-art techniques, the training has helped create more effective measures against wildlife poaching and the illegal trade and trafficking of live tigers and tiger parts.
Today, follow up projects like SCBI’s Tiger Conservation Partnership Program help Malaysia share information with its neighbors about effective ways to identify and protect tiger habitats in the face of rapid infrastructure development. Its knowledge exchange platform, WildTigers Listserv, has more than 500 tiger conservation professionals as members.
There is still much to be done to protect tigers from going extinct. Their future relies heavily on the protection of habitat within their range, which overlaps with areas of significant and continued human population growth. Continued partnerships between governments, conservation organizations and communities will be essential to the long-term protection of this species.