Tigers Forever


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PERHAPS no other wild animal has influenced Asia’s cultures as deeply as the tiger. Efforts to save tigers by establishing special ‘game preserves’ go back fifty years or more, and focused modern conservation efforts over a quarter century. Although early hunter-naturalists tried to understand tigers, modern scientific studies were initiated by biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society only in the early 1960s,1 in whose footsteps others followed.2 Therefore, it is not illogical to expect, as has been the case in other applied sciences – for example, agriculture, medicine or communication – advancing scientific knowledge should have shaped efforts to save the big cat.

Surprisingly, this has rarely been the case with Indian wildlife conservation. This curious dichotomy between ‘knowledge’ and ‘passion’ or between ‘reason’ and ‘action’, has undermined efforts at tiger recovery. As a result, while famines, food-imports and dysfunctional telephones that characterized the 1960s have been largely conquered through application of knowledge-based solutions, tigers continue to be under grave threat.

Recent estimates suggest the tiger’s historical range in Asia has shrunk by about 93%.3 Tigers now occur only in 13 countries, down from about 30 historically. There appears to be 1.1 million square kilometres of potential tiger habitat left in the world that holds about 76 discrete tiger populations. Although there are over 20,000 tigers behind bars in captivity, global wild tiger population is precariously low, guesses of various sorts placing it at 3000-7000 individuals. Despite substantial expenditure of passion, energy and money over three decades, our efforts to save wild tigers for posterity appear to be faltering.


Considering this dismal state of affairs, some conservationists rule out any possibility that ‘human interventions’ (including future technological and economic advances, as well as conservation actions) might make a difference: they proclaim the tiger to be already doomed. However, such a doggedly deterministic projection of the tiger’s future is a difficult proposition to accept. We live in a world of change and unpredictability, and much can be learnt from past failures and successes to change our future behaviour. Furthermore, if our model of the fate of the tiger were to include potential economic and technological changes, our predictions will be even less certain.

For example, soon after independence famine stalked India, driving massive food imports and clearing of forests for agriculture; the modern economy that could take people away from the land and increase literacy as well as drive birth rates down, crawled at the proverbial ‘Hindu’ rate of 3% per year. There were no conservation laws on the horizon. If any competent ecologist had built a reasonable predictive model asking whether wild tigers would survive beyond the next decade, the answer would have been a resounding no. Yet, not only did tigers survive but their populations rebounded because of the efforts of a handful of naturalists and new conservation measures, as well as, to an extent, because of improved economic growth and consequent alleviation of poverty. Viewed from this perspective, with over a million square kilometres of tiger forests still remaining in Asia, about three fourths of it in the relatively productive tropical region,4 there are still lots of habitats left for us to recover wild tiger populations.


In spite of seemingly insurmountable and worsening conditions for tiger conservation, there are glimmers of opportunity. We have experience of successful tiger conservation actions at specific locations in India: voluntary relocation of villages from Bhadra Tiger Reserve, public education in combination with legal action that resulted in the closure of a destructive mine in Kudremukh, and a campaign that led to the termination of a failed eco-development project in Nagara-hole. These instances offer clear models of how tigers and their habitats can be protected against great odds through persistent, informed advocacy.

In a broader social context, compared to the 1960s, countries like India, Thailand and Malaysia now have greater financial resources to invest in conservation. They also sport robust economies that can wean people away from hunting and land-based occupations that harm tigers. Even a poor country like Myanmar, coping with huge problems, has boldly proclaimed its intent to create the world’s largest tiger reserve.

Therefore, going beyond mere doomsday prophecies, what wild tigers really need now is a clear analysis of the ecological and social challenges involved in effecting their recovery, and an honest risk-assessment backed up by bold conservation investments. In short, something akin to a venture capitalist’s ‘business plan’.


Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS or ‘the society’ henceforth) has led in ecological research and species recovery efforts since the early 1900s: It was a key player in restoring the bison to the North American prairies and in opening up exploratory faunal surveys in Burma. The global mission of the society is to ‘save wildlife and wild lands through science-based conservation actions.’ Its primary tactic is to build and demonstrate effective conservation solutions on the ground. Being ‘science-based’ necessarily involves constant self-criticism, continuous monitoring of results and merciless rejection of failed conservation models. It involves a steady shift from ‘less than perfect’ to ‘something better’, based on hard evidence. This process, sometimes called ‘adaptive management’, is common to the world of modern business also. However, few realize that its pioneers were, in fact, ecologists, information theorists and systems engineers.5

This paper describes a recent WCS initiative – ambitiously titled Tigers Forever – to recover wild tiger populations at several representative habitats across Asia. Tigers Forever is by no means an emotional ‘seat of the pants’ response: It emerged out of nearly four decades of WCS engagement with wild tigers6 as well as with contentious conservation debates.7 The programme’s roots go deep into lessons learned from on-ground conservation interventions of its staff and local partners, particularly in India’s Western Ghats and in the Russian Far East.

This empirical experience has covered an array of actions that address both long- and short-term threats to tigers. It has included monitoring tiger and prey population dynamics, enhancing local capacity for protection of tigers, prey and habitats, consolidation of tiger habitats through promotion of voluntary resettlement and land acquisitions, dealing with problem tigers, hunting and forest-product harvest issues, building local capacity for research, outreach, community education through training and formal education, catalyzing the creation of new protected areas, and national and global level policy interventions. There have been successes and failures along the way and much has been learnt from both.


Most importantly, these conservation efforts were carried out by the society’s staff while yoked in harness with local partners equally dedicated to saving tigers. Through this process they generated information relevant for rational conservation actions in the future. In the past two decades, the conservation world has seen a shift away from the biocentric paradigm towards one that is more oriented towards meeting human demands on nature. In the resulting debates,8 WCS scientists have played a somewhat adversarial role in challenging this paradigm shift, while proposing innovative alternatives.


Given this background, Tigers Forever is not just an academic construct for tiger recovery. It is an action-plan in response to the frequent challenges thrown at the society by successful entrepreneurs: We love the tiger, but tell us why should our hard-earned money be wasted on a lost cause? Why should donors support conservationists who appear at their doors – hat in hand, every year – bearing more tales of woe? In the world of business, failure is often swiftly punished and success immediately rewarded: why should this not be so in the world of conservation? Why can’t conservationists learn from the past and adaptively improve their interventions? Can tiger conservationists isolate and identify critical factors – ones that they have some hope of changing – instead of persisting with a suite of standard ‘do-gooder’ actions as a matter of faith? And, pointedly, can WCS actually demonstrate through hard scientific data that its own efforts to protect and recover wild tigers are working?

Tigers Forever project is steered by a group of WCS tiger scientists, conservationists and entrepreneurs who back it. The tiger monitoring activities in the field are guided by a technical support group which this author leads. Although Tigers Forever works synergistically with other tiger conservation activities of the society, its initial focus is on five tiger landscapes: Western Ghats of India, Huai Kha Khaeng-Thung Yai forest complex in Thailand, Gunung Leuser ecosystem in Indonesia, Seima bio-diversity conservation area in Cambodia and Nam Et-Phou Louey forests of Lao PDR.9 Explorations are ongoing to expand into more landscapes in Asia. A major WCS partner, Panthera Foundation, backed by entrepreneurs Tom Kaplan and J. Michael Cline, has committed an annual support of at least one million dollars for the next ten years, aiming to leverage multiplier effects from this seed funding. While going into programmatic complexities of Tigers Forever is beyond the scope of this article, key elements that make this project rather unique in the conservation world are highlighted below.


Historically, WCS researchers have been at the forefront of efforts to gather reliable knowledge about tigers to share freely with the conservation community through peer-reviewed science and popular media. A quick survey of scientific literature on tigers shows WCS has led from the front, accounting for 49 out of 74 (two thirds) of all articles. Another illustration: 16 out of 18 rigorous estimates of tiger population density (number of tigers per 100 square kilometres) – information that is critical for assessing population status – have been published by WCS scientists and partners. Further examples include the society’s contribution to the efforts to map worldwide distribution of tiger populations10 and to the coalition against tiger trade at CITIES and other forums.

Even more pertinently, WCS field researchers and associates continuously generate and freely share with the world information vital for effecting tiger recovery. Such sharing is not restricted to ecological research. Studies of human dimensions of tiger conservation are being conducted in collaboration with competent social scientists.11


Tigers Forever project does not merely aim at slowing down the tiger’s decline, it is committed to achieving an average 50% increase in tiger numbers across project sites. Most other organizations trying to save tigers hesitate to set such clear, measurable goals. Sceptics think this WCS goal overambitious – a well-known conservationist reportedly joked that the society’s biologists must have been on a drug-induced high to set up such a goal. On the contrary, I would argue, given the dynamics of tiger and prey populations, this is a reasonable objective.

A carefully documented WCS study, which used state of the art camera trapping and line transect survey methods across 11 Indian reserves, showed that because tigers annually crop about 10% of their prey populations with an average offtake of 50 prey animals per tiger, their densities are strongly determined by prey densities.12 This relationship held strongly across ecologically diverse sites, the only exception being a small park in Madhya Pradesh where direct poaching of tigers appears to have resulted in their numbers being lower than predictions based on prey abundance. (A similar situation may have later resulted in the tiger extirpation in Sariska.) Overall, if tiger forests are empty across much of Asia, the key driver of the decline has been the depletion of their ungulate prey by local hunters.

The above study shows that if ungulate prey numbers can be pushed up to limits of 50-60 animals per square kilometre, achievable with reasonable field protection against local hunters, tigers in turn can rebound to their potential of 10-20 tigers per 100 square kilometres within a decade. In the productive deciduous forests of India, Thailand and Cambodia, their biological resilience can potentially result in three to five fold increases (300-500%). However, not all tiger sites may have such high carrying capacities (typically tropical evergreen forests, mangroves and taiga forests of Russia support much lower prey densities, and consequently tiger densities. Furthermore, comparable protection efficiency may not be achievable across all sites. Despite these caveats, given the natural productivity and resilience of tiger populations, the targeted 50% average increase across all Tigers Forever sites may not be an unreasonable goal.


Even more startling are the results of another long-term WCS study of tigers (1991-2000) conducted at Nagarahole, India,13 which showed that given ‘reasonable’ protection, even in the face of poaching and other problems at the edges,14 tiger population densities were at high levels (7.3 to 21.5 tigers per 100 km2), despite losing about 23% of tigers annually through mortality and dispersal. High levels of reproduction and some degree of immigration ensured this population held steady through a decade; recent work shows the pattern after 17 years of monitoring.

Yet, because of constant media focus on ‘direct killing of tigers for trade’, the importance of prey depletion as a driver of tiger declines is poorly appreciated by the tiger conservation community. Although WCS is a part of the international coalition against tiger trade, it does not believe that anti-trade operations alone are sufficient for on ground tiger recovery. Most interventions to counter tiger trade necessarily occur in urban centres. They are quite distinct from field patrolling that protects the tiger’s prey base and tigers themselves from local hunters. Ensuring such field protection, through all possible means, is thus the top priority at all Tigers Forever sites.


Beyond ensuring protection of source breeding populations of tigers, additional interventions to ensure their longer term viability vary widely depending on the local ecological and social contexts. These are extremely site-specific, resting on a foundation of research and practical experience. Therefore, WCS tiger conservation interventions often radically diverge from the broad-spectrum patent medicine of ‘eco-development’ heavily promoted by agencies such as the World Bank-GEF combine and India’s Tiger Task Force.15

The knowledge based site-specificity of such interventions can be illustrated through a comparison of WCS prescription for tiger recovery in the Western Ghats of India with those in the Russian Far East. My prescription for recovery of our tigers in India’s Western Ghats includes strict protection against hunting in core breeding areas, elimination of forest product exploitation and de-fragmenting of tiger habitats and preventing conflicts through voluntary resettlement of households using incentives. On the other hand, my colleagues in Russia offer a different set of prescriptions for recovering their tigers. In fact, the only common element between our strategies is the strict protection of core areas.


The Western Ghat core sites of Karnataka, if protected optimally, can have female range sizes as small as 20-40 square kilometres and potentially support a meta-population of 400-500 tigers, a reasonable number to ensure demographic viability. On the other hand, in the prey-scarce taiga forests of Russia, where female ranges are of about 500 square kilometre size, the area required to ensure survival of such a viable meta-population is around 300,000 square kilometres, extending across the entire Russian Far East and into China.

The habitat necessary for supporting 400-500 wild tigers, which is reasonably free of incompatible human uses (hunting, livestock-raising, forest product collection), potentially exists within the core sites in the Western Ghats. Extending such restrictions to wider areas in this densely populated landscape is not a practical option, given the current land use and developmental compulsions.

On the other hand, habitat necessary to support 400-500 tigers in the Russian taiga can be practically maintained only through regulation rather than banning of existing extractive practices (legalized hunting of ungulates, and forest product collection) of an extremely low-density human population. Nevertheless, both strategies do rest on a location-specific scientific understanding of tiger biology, landscape ecology as well as compulsions of the human society. Both are effective tactics in their own specific contexts under the rubric of the same overall strategy.


Because of quantifiable targets, establishing reliable monitoring protocols to measure the status of tiger and prey populations and human impacts, as well as conservation interventions made, are also integral to Tigers Forever projects. It should be noted that reliability of such monitoring is specified not merely in terms of use of advanced tools such as camera traps, radio-telemetry, genetic analyses or global positioning systems, it also includes employing cutting-edge ideas in the realms of population sampling, modelling and estimation.

Such tiger monitoring is planned at two distinct scales – intensive set of annual monitoring activities directed at ‘critical tiger habitats’ or ‘core areas’ in which breeding populations of tigers are expected to rebound, as well as less frequent, lower intensity monitoring of tracks and scats across the ‘tiger landscapes’ to assess wider ‘ripple effects’ of conservation interventions. A carefully designed monitoring protocol that involves camera-trapping and DNA-based capture-recapture estimation of tiger density, survival rates, mortality, recruitment, immigration and emigration; line transect or index-based assessment of prey numbers; and monitoring of threats, human impacts and conservation interventions across wider landscapes using ‘occupancy surveys’, are all part of the Tigers Forever protocol.

The ultimate objective of monitoring is to integrate it with ongoing conservation interventions of the governments and local conservation partners. Such integration can facilitate what businessmen term ‘adaptive management’: a continual process where learning gets intertwined with management interventions through testing of predictions; and where interventions and their relative degree of utility in terms of influencing measurable conservation targets – in this case increasing tiger and prey numbers and reducing threat levels – are assessed quantitatively, reviewed and refined into better practices.16


As a New York based, scientifically rooted organization, Wildlife Conservation Society has both unique strengths and critical shortcomings in addressing issues of global tiger recovery. Therefore, it recognizes that if tigers are to be saved in their native lands, it must work with an array of effective local conservation partners. A corollary to this goal is not to get bogged down in ineffective partnerships. Effective Tigers Forever partners form a truly varied mix across Asia. They range from national, state and local governments, local communities and their leaders, conservation NGOs, business and the media.

Almost everywhere across Asia, government agencies involved in forestry, wildlife, land management and law enforcement have legal control over the remaining tiger habitats. Tigers Forever partners work closely with them. In countries such as India and Thailand, where wildlife laws and on-ground capacity for protection are higher than elsewhere (but still inadequate), the society works directly or through its local partner NGOs to assist, strengthen and catalyze their protective actions. Examples of this are the close collaboration of WCS partners with government departments in promoting voluntary resettlement projects in India and in improving wildlife protection and monitoring capacity in Thailand. In Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, where governments have sought WCS assistance in improving their internal capacity for wildlife protection, this involvement is even more direct.

Partnering effective local NGOs involved in tiger recovery interventions is another critical programmatic element, where national laws permit. WCS Russia is involved in active partnerships with associations of hunting leaseholders who control land use and the Indonesia programme acts in concert with Leuser International Foundation (LIF) with its decades of track record in tiger conservation. The WCS programme in India actively partners with a host of small but spunky conservation NGOs that sport a bewildering array of acronyms – Wildlife First, LIFT, Wild Cat-C, Bhadra Wildlife Trust, SWIFT and KWF, which are active around key sites.


Working with village communities to rationalize or compensate resource extraction levels is a project component where such legal extractions impinge on critical livelihood issues. Such community collaborations are exemplified by negotiations with Cambodian resin tappers who supply the boat building industry in Viet Nam, mitigating livestock losses in Lao PDR, and enabling local forest rights in northern Myanmar. However, such community conservation components are not generic, do-gooder activities typical of most integrated conservation and development projects (ICDP) but are tied to reducing threats to tigers at these sites.

The world conservation scenario today is replete with dire predictions about how the tiger is doomed to extinction: a telephone response survey showed that 93% of viewers of a popular Indian television channel believed that tigers are ‘doomed’. Yet, on the other hand, many ‘conservation models’ are contending aggressively, marking off territories, much like the big cat itself.


Models that promote ‘sustainable use of tiger habitats’ in combination with some sort of ‘eco-development’ activity, are favoured broadly by governments, multilateral donors and many NGOs that describe themselves as pro-people. This model is also favoured by officials who implement tiger conservation for various reasons.17 Another contrasting model promotes ‘tiger-farming’ as a supply-side solution to tiger scarcity. This one is promoted by an odd alliance of Chinese officials, neo-conservative think tanks and left-oriented media. Some others are demanding a return to centralized, old-style preservation, with no questions asked.

Somewhat differently, Tigers Forever proposes a ‘business plan’ for tiger recovery. The plan is rooted in tiger ecology first and foremost, because any species can only be saved if its ecological needs are met. It aims to conduct a series of social, managerial and ecological experiments across Asia with starting conditions rigorously specified. It sets clear timelines and rigorous methods for measuring success (or failure). Wildlife Conservation Society’s tiger biologists – George Schaller, Alan Rabinowitz, Dale Miquelle, John Goodrich and myself, view Tigers Forever as an extension of our multi-decadal effort to understand and save wild tigers. As scientists, we are trained to deal with an uncertain world by constantly validating our ‘models of reality’ against samples of data from that real world. I believe this approach holds much promise whether it is in the world of quantum physics or tiger conservation.



1. G.B. Schaller, The Deer and the Tiger. University of Chicago Press, 1967.

2. K.U. Karanth, 2001, The Way of the Tiger: the Natural History and Conservation of the Endangered Big Cat. Orient Longman India, Hyderabad (2006 edition).

3. E. Sanderson, et al., Setting Priorities for the Conservation and Recovery of Wild Tigers: 2005-2015. The Technical Assessment. WCS, WWF, Smithsonian and NFWF-STF, New York-Washington DC, 2006.

4. Ibid.

5. B.K. Williams, J. D. Nichols and M. J. Conroy, Analysis and Management of Animal Populations. Academic Press, San Diego, California, 2002.


6. G.B. Schaller, op. cit., 1967 and K.U. Karanth, op. cit., 2001.

7. J.G. Robinson, ‘Limits to Caring: Sustainable Living and the Loss of Biodiversity’, Conservation Biology 7, 1993, 20-28.

8. Ibid.

9. www.wcs.org and www.tigersforever.org

10. G.B. Schaller, op. cit., 1967.

11. www.wcs.org and www.tigersforever.org

12. K.U. Karanth, J.D. Nichols, N.S. Kumar, W.A. Link and J.E. Hines, Tigers and Their Prey: Predicting Carnivore Densities >From Prey Abundance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 101, 2006, 4854-4858.

13. ‘Assessing Tiger Population Dynamics From Photographic Capture-Recapture Sampling’, Ecology 87: 2925-2937.

14. K.U. Karanth, ‘Tiger Task Force: Reconciling Conservation With Emancipatory Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, 12 November 2005.

15. Ibid.

16. B.K. Williams, J. D. Nichols and M. J. Conroy, op.cit., 2002.

17. K.U. Karanth, op. cit., 2005.