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WWF has recently publicized the a paper that argued a trebling of wild tiger numbers was feasible [1]. This reflects disagreement with another (WCS-derived) paper that argued for the 6% solution [2].

The argument from the Walston et al. “6% paper” was that it is extremely difficult and challenging to save wild tigers. This is kind of obvious as for the last 30 years, tiger numbers have steadily and relentlessly declined. Walston et al. proposed that 6% of the former critical habitat of tigers was feasible and defendable perspective. This would necessarily mean abandoning some reserves or areas of potential habitat.

The Wirkramanayake et al. paper [1] is far more ambitious in scope. Nonetheless, in some ways, it differs little from the IUCN intent to double tiger numbers from the early 2000s. At that point we thought there were around 5000 wild tiger sin Asia. There’s now around 3200. Trebling 3200, is close to doubling 5000.

The paper reflects some of the familiar issues in this debate. This is a very traditional approach based on optimising reserve design. Often reserves are not planned according to the best conservation principles. Rather they are typically placed subject to political and economic factors. As a consequence, they’re often too isolated or too small to meet conservation goals.

Nonetheless, much as I’d like to see tiger numbers (and other large cat species) increasing, the paper neglects the threats posed by human-tiger conflicts and poaching. Low densities in some reserves (e.g. Cambodia) aren’t a function of insufficient reserve size, but poaching. The loss of all tigers through poaching in the Indian reserves of Sariska and Panna reflect this.

Sadly, within the whole paper, nothing concrete is offered as a means to combat poaching. Statements such as “tigers must be worth more to local communities alive than dead” are clear on outcome, but not means. Yes, there has been widespread agreement for years that locals obtain too little benefit from tigers while bearing many of the risks and costs. Reserve mismanagement, corruption etc have all contributed to the dissatisfaction locals have towards tiger reserves.

There is a fundamental cost-benefit analysis that needs to be confronted. A poacher in India can earn say, $US1500 for supplying a dead-tiger to smugglers. Earn a few dollars a day with say wildlife tourism, may not be sufficient compensation.

In short, yes, more tigers would be a great conservation outcome. But the approach through traditional reserve design, seems to be turning a blind eye to threats posed from poaching.

[1] Wikramanayake, E., Dinerstein, E., Seidensticker, J., Lumpkin, S., Pandav, B., Shrestha, M., Mishra, H., Ballou, J., Johnsingh, A., Chestin, I., Sunarto, S., Thinley, P., Thapa, K., Jiang, G., Elagupillay, S., Kafley, H., Pradhan, N. M. B., Jigme, K., Teak, S., Cutter, P., Aziz, M. A. and Than, U. , A landscape-based conservation strategy to double the wild tiger population. Conservation Letters, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00162.x

[2] Walston, J., Robinson, J.G. and Bennett, E.L. (2010). Bringing the tiger back from the brink- the 6% solution. PLoS Biol, 8. e1000485. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000485.