Tiger numbers have plunged in the wild over the past century, but there has been progress in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia to restore their habitats. Photo: iStock

This Friday, July 29, was Global Tiger Day, and this year’s celebration held particular significance. Nepal just announced that the number of wild tigers within its borders has increased to 355, almost tripling the population of these animals since 2009.

A decade ago, this species was on the cusp of vanishing from much of its wild habitat in Asia – and with it many aspects of our natural world that deliver critical benefits to billions of people. Now wild tigers are on the right path in Nepal, India and several other regions, proving once again that hard work, high-level political commitment and collaboration can produce meaningful, large-scale change.

A century ago, perhaps 100,000 tigers roamed the planet. By 2010, that number had plummeted to as few as 3,200. This grim milestone spelled disaster not just for tigers, but for critical ecosystems across the Asia region.

Consider this: To save tigers, we need to secure forest and grassland habitats across Asia where they live. Tigers require large areas to survive. To protect just one of these majestic animals, we must conserve an estimated 10,000 hectares of forest.

And by protecting their natural habitats, we also conserve a vast array of ecosystem services and benefits that help sustain thousands of other species, including greater one-horned rhinos, Asian elephants and, you guessed it, humans.

The forests that serve as tiger habitats store vast amounts of carbon – more than the average forest, in fact – thereby helping to slow the rate of climate change. They also help shield communities from natural disasters such as extreme flooding, provide a natural buffer between people and wildlife that may carry infectious diseases, and watersheds that are vital to some 830 million people

And tiger habitats are a foundation for many important cultural traditions and can be a sustainable source of tourism revenue and other economic benefits for the communities that exist in and around them.

This simple truth – that the health of the planet is bound up in the fate of species like the tiger – was the impetus behind TX2, a global initiative created in 2010 with the goal of doubling wild-tiger numbers by 2022, the Year of the Tiger. 

This year, as we were assessing progress toward TX2, I traveled to India’s Corbett National Park to see first-hand some of the changes that a decade of ambitious conservation efforts has brought. Corbett National Park is at the western edge of the Terai Arc, a landscape that stretches across parts of Nepal and India, connecting parks and wildlife reserves in both nations. 

I visited the Terai Arc in Nepal in 2002 as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was working with governments and other partners to develop a conservation plan for the landscape. The Terai underwent rapid changes after widespread malaria-eradication efforts began in the 1950s. Much of the Terai Arc’s natural habitat was converted as farming expanded, forests were degraded, protected areas became isolated and poaching increased.

To address this, we created a blueprint to restore the region’s ecological integrity, while also incorporating the needs and values of the people living there. And it’s amazing to see, after 20 years, the changes this has brought. 

Today, the Terai Arc is a vibrant landscape with 16 protected areas, connected in many places by habitat corridors and forest reserves managed and monitored by communities. Community-led tourism generates revenue for local households. Tigers and other species are better able to safely move around, and Corbett itself now has more tigers – some 235 – than any other park in Asia.

We’ve seen similar progress in a number of tiger-range countries where governments, conservationists and others have united to bring this majestic creature back from the brink. Tiger populations are now on the rise, not just in Nepal and India, but also northeast China, Bhutan and Russia.

Last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its latest assessment that there are likely to be at least 4,500-5,000 tigers in the wild today, and additional positive survey reports are expected later this year. So after decades of steady decline, wild-tiger numbers continue to increase at the global level. 

The success of TX2 offers hope for the future of conservation, along with a few vital lessons. First, meaningful conservation at scale takes time and persistence. Whether we’re talking about tiger conservation or the transition to renewable energy, real change comes slowly and often with temporary setbacks, and we have to keep our eye on the ball.

Second, we achieve enduring conservation outcomes only when we integrate conservation with people’s livelihoods and socioeconomic needs. Indeed, conservation and development must go hand in hand.

Third, the kind of change we seek requires political support at the highest levels – in government, the private sector and civil society. It is no coincidence that in the countries where tiger numbers are increasing, conservation has been prioritized by national leaders, who embrace the wisdom of understanding the long-term benefits of nature for people.

Finally, while we celebrate the good news from Nepal and elsewhere, our work isn’t finished. This year, leaders from tiger-range countries will gather with conservationists and others, to determine the next phase of the tiger’s global recovery and to reshape the future of conserving tigers and the critical landscapes where they live.

At a time when the world is staring down the barrel of dwindling resources and collapsing ecosystems, the mission to save the tiger has become about so much more than the plight of one species. It’s about the importance of biodiversity to the future of our planet, our home.

But for this Global Tiger Day, we can reflect on the fact that there are nearly double the number of wild tigers in the world than there were 12 years ago. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Ginette Hemley

Ginette Hemley is senior vice-president of wildlife conservation at WWF.