NG stock photo by Michael Nichols
September 27, 2010 is International Tiger Day, a day set aside by all who care about the biggest of the cats to discuss the state of tigers globally and celebrate conservation efforts that are currently underway. Joseph Smith, Tiger Program Director for Panthera, a charity dedicated to restoration and conservation of the world’s 36 species of wild cats, answers questions about the challenges facing tigers.
Recent studies indicate that there are as few as 3,500 tigers left in the wild, of which only 1,000 are breeding females. What can be done to bring tigers back from the brink of extinction?
Wild tigers face multiple threats. The poaching of the cats and their prey, combined with a striking loss of habitat, are the main reasons that we have seen populations plummet in the last decade. To bring tigers back from the brink we need to focus on eliminating these threats to each of the remaining populations. Our conservation priorities lie in the populations that we know can thrive. These are well described as “source sites”–or the 42 locations that have recently been identified as having the capacity to support significant numbers of breeding female tigers.
Why should the conservation community put all of its resources into “source sites?”
This is very much like a tiger triage–a moment that requires us to hone in on where we can make a difference before they are gone. The 42 “source sites” we’re talking about contain almost 70 percent of all remaining tigers in the world.
Protecting “source sites” is our best option largely because of its feasibility. As outlined in a recent PLoS Biology study, authored by a group of leading conservation scientists including Panthera’s CEO and executive director–Alan Rabinowitz and Luke Hunter respectively–32 of the 42 “source sites” are clustered in India, Sumatra, and the Russian Far East, further narrowing the locations we need to concentrate on in the immediate future.
In the longer term, we’ll need to expand from the “source site” focus, and Panthera is already preparing for this with the Tiger Corridor Program. But this should not detract from our current focus on source sites–this is absolutely the right thing to do at this point.
What current efforts are underway to save tigers in “source sites”?
Multiple organizations run tiger-specific conservation programs, but our work at Panthera centers around the Tigers Forever program, which is a collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to increase tiger numbers by at least 50 percent across key tiger sites over the next decade. This program works because it focuses on the biggest threats to tigers–poaching of tigers, their prey, and habitat loss. Equally important is that this program is creating a model based upon best practices that can be replicated in other places, and is working with the people in these key sites to nurture the next generation of conservationists and ensure continued success in the future.
The conservation community has created detailed plans to protect tigers. Do you think they will survive?
Yes, provided we focus our resources where they count, wild tigers will rebound. International Tiger Day gives us a chance to reflect on our role in saving this iconic species and I hope that everyone takes a moment to realize that it’s not too late–that you can help and make a difference by supporting programs on the ground that achieve results.
Currently based in Sumatra, Indonesia, Dr. Joe Smith serves as Panthera’s Tiger Program Director. Joe is working on Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program, currently a joint program with the Wildlife Conservation Society that aims to increase tiger populations in key sites by at least 50% over the next ten years. Joe’s work also currently involves the protection of tiger landscapes in the montane forests of northern and western Sumatra.
Originally from Cambridge, England, Joe’s fascination with natural history encouraged him to study Zoology at the University of Reading before moving to South America to run commercial expeditions and biodiversity surveys in Peru and Ecuador’s lowland and cloud forests. Later, he returned to school to receive his Master’s degree in Wild Animal Biology at the Royal Veterinary College and Institute of Zoology in London. This year, through Panthera’s Kaplan Graduate Awards Program, Joe completed his Ph.D. at London’s Imperial College, where his doctoral research examined the mammalian diversity of human-dominated landscapes and the distribution of tigers and their prey in Asia.
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