Wild tigers have made a dramatic comeback: but how?

Across India the Striped Water God is roaring again, with numbers up by 30%. It's a lesson for other countries.

News of the dramatic revival of the tiger population in India, from 1,706 tigers to 2,226 tigers in just three years, is extremely encouraging and should be a lesson to other countries with wild tigers across Asia.

It is a reflection of India's national commitment to secure a future for the tiger in the wild; a reflection of the value the nation places on the ecosystem, and the cultural, aesthetic and tourism benefits the wild tiger delivers.

For over a decade this commitment has been characterised by two proactive initiatives: the increase in the number of “tiger reserves”, bringing more tiger habitat under protection with government funding; and the creation of a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, to target organised criminal networks that are trafficking tigers through neighbouring countries and into China - which is the primary consumer country of tiger-derived goods.

Until 2002, India depended on the unreliable pugmark (footprint) method to estimate its tiger population, declaring as a result that there were 3,642 tigers; an estimate that few tiger experts had any faith in. In 2005, the country launched a new nationwide, multi-pronged approach, using camera-traps and radio-collars - subsequently announcing that the population was closer to 1,411. The development of today’s scientific approach to estimating the tiger population, along with promoting the availability of prey species (ie tiger food) and ensuring that stretches of good tiger habitat are connected, all amount to a major feather in India’s cap.

Still, the situation in India is far from perfect. Tigers and other Asian big cats are still poached for trade in their skins and bones in China. There is still much to be done to ensure India’s tiger forests are not ripped apart for mines, dams, roads and railways.

But the lessons is that where there is a will there is a way. After all, "will" is how India’s tiger conservation journey started in the 1970s, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banned tiger hunting, established tiger reserves under a Government initiative, Project Tiger. It is a testament to poorly paid forest staff, and to the people of India, that despite the high human population density, tigers have weathered the storms and are on the rise.

Perhaps in India there is, in the cultural significance of the tiger - steed to the Hindu Goddess Durga - something that has enabled the animal to pierce the psyche of a nation. But that does not explain why the tiger, also revered in other tiger range countries, has been so devalued elsewhere.

In China and Laos, for example, the prevailing philosophy and approach is sadly different. Government policy positively encourages the captive breeding of tigers and other wildlife, placing a higher value on the body parts of dead tigers than on live tigers in the wild. Vietnam and Cambodia are dangerously close to following suit. Between China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam there are over 6,500 tigers in captivity, where they are not bred for conservation but for their body parts and for entertainment. Not surprisingly, wild tiger populations in these countries are a fraction of those in India.

You would think that trade in tiger parts from these farms relieves pressure on wild tigers. In fact in does nothing of the kind, and instead drives poaching, because it perpetuates the desirability of tiger parts and stimulates demand.

All of these countries I have mentioned are parties to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and have signed up to the Global Tiger Recovery Programme and the London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade. If they are truly committed to saving wild tigers and ending illegal trade, they need to revise their policies and laws to end tiger ‘farming’, invest in demand reduction strategies and follow India’s lead by investing in and securing inviolate spaces for tigers and their prey.