Fierce yet fragile
Coexistence in a changing world
On International Tiger Day we look at how IUCN's tiger programme is helping humans and tigers coexist – and making sure these magnificent predators survive in the wild.
Tigers once inhabited vast parts of Asia, from Indonesia to the Central Asian states; they have now vanished from over 90% of their former range. The few remaining tigers confined to this limited space are increasingly competing with humans for resources.
Over the last 100 years, tigers have been lost from vast areas of their original range, including South Korea, large parts of China, Central Asia, and the islands of Java and Bali. Of the nine original subspecies, four are now extinct.
Former tiger range
in South and
Current tiger range
In the past, tigers were hunted for sport in countries such as India, while the species was extirpated from large areas of China as a pest.
More recently, poaching to supply tiger body parts for the Asian folk-medicine trade has escalated to become the major threat to the world's biggest cats. Humans also overhunt the species which tigers normally rely on for food and convert the forests they inhabit into villages, towns and agricultural land, such as palm oil plantations.
Squeezed into ever-shrinking habitats, these large, charismatic and often dangerous animals no longer live separately from humans, but need to learn to coexist with them.
Tigers need to breed and hunt in relatively undisturbed core areas, but they also pass through land used for agriculture, commercial forestry or inhabited by forest communities. Here, inevitably, they come into contact with people.
With shrinking forest cover and fewer prey, tigers may end up hunting livestock and are often killed or captured in retaliation.
IUCN's Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP) aims to ensure the survival of tigers in the wild by working with local communities to reduce human-tiger conflict and the over-exploitation of forests, as well as managing tiger habitats and combatting poaching. A suite of partner organisations is working with IUCN to carry out the projects.
In the Terai regions of India and Nepal, human-wildlife conflict is a key problem.
To help humans and tigers coexist peacefully, two IUCN projects carried out by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) are developing predator-proof fencing and cattle feeding regimes away from key tiger habitats.
They are also equipping and training park staff in the use of tools that allow them to better protect tigers from poachers, such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool.
Developing alternative livelihoods for local communities to reduce pressures on forest resources is a focus for much of IUCN's tiger conservation work.
In Bhutan's Royal Manas National Park, an ITHCP project is helping local people develop ecotourism as a source of alternative income.
In the Manas National Park in India, the NGO Aaranyak is helping the local community set up agricultural and forest plots outside of the park.
Perhaps the most critical components of any project are people with a passion for wildlife. One of the participants of the Manas project in Assam, Bibhuti Lakhar, has recently been nominated as a finalist for the Heritage Heroes Award for his work in the park since the early 1990s. During this time he has dedicated himself to working with local communities and is a specialist in the region's wildlife and ecology.
In the future, the situation for tigers could worsen as land is converted into industrial-scale palm oil plantations, and motorways and other infrastructure cut through tiger habitats. This leads to isolated and fragmented tiger populations which suffer from social and genetic problems.
If conservation efforts succeed in boosting tiger numbers and human populations continue to grow, the potential for conflict between tigers and humans will only increase and needs to be managed.
The problems tigers face exemplify those facing many wildlife species today, including elephants, rhinos, gorillas and lions.
Well-developed conservation programmes can achieve far more than just helping species survive in the wild.
The conservation of large, charismatic species helps to effectively manage protected areas and habitats, which in turn safeguards a range of different species, ecosystems and the services they provide to people, and improves the living standards of local communities.