Flagship Species: 1. Tigers

Posted: 5 March 2001

Author: Peter Jackson

The promotion of charismatic species, such as the tiger, is an important way of mobilising popular support for habitat conservation. In the first of a series of reports on Flagship Species, Peter Jackson says there is still a chance to save the tiger from extinction in the wild - if there is a will to do so.

Humans and tigers have coexisted since time immemorial at the summit of food chains which form part of the complex web of life on earth. They have gone about their lives conscious of, but not dependent on, each other's existence. Today, humans dominate the world, and the tiger is at their mercy. tigerBengal tiger, Ranthambhore National Park, India© Gunter Zester/Still PicturesThroughout the ages, the tiger has had a remarkable impact on the human mind. Millions of Hindus worship the image of Durga, the powerful female deity, who rides a tiger. Siva, God of Destruction and Creation, is enthroned on a tiger skin. Tigers feature in Buddhist culture in China, Korea and Japan. And in the forests, tribal people still tend simple shrines to the tiger. For many Asians, the power of the tiger is sought in its bones to cure disease. In the western world, the tiger has inspired art and poetry, and has been adopted as the advertising symbol of leading businesses. Yet we humans are near the verge of wiping out this majestic animal.

Nobody really knows how many wild tigers there are. Counting such a secretive animal is immensely difficult, and most estimates are little more than guesses. However, there may be between 5,000 and 7,500 - a small fraction of the 100,000 which may have roamed the forests a century ago. [The latest estimate, by WWF, in 2010, puts the figure of tigers surviving in the wild at only about 3,200]. 

Among the reasons for this are an exploding human population, conversion of wild lands for settlement and agriculture, and ruthless hunting of its prey, and of the tiger itself as a trophy and a pest, have brought the tiger to its present plight. Three of the eight subspecies - Bali, Javan and Caspian - are already extinct, and the South China tiger is on the brink. Can the others survive the coming century?

Tiger conservation

Although there had been concern about the tiger's decline, it was only in 1972 that serious conservation efforts began. India, under the determined leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, launched Project Tiger, and the Bengal tiger began to rebound. Behind the Iron Curtain, the USSR had long before started to rehabilitate the little-known tigers of the Russian Far East.

Most people associate tigers with hot countries, but in Russia, China and Korea tigers thrive in winter snows and sub-zero temperatures. They are widely known as Siberian tigers, but, in fact, their home is not the dark coniferous forests that stretch across northern Russia; they live in deciduous forests in latitudes similar in Europe to those between Rome and Berlin, and in North America between Denver and Calgary. They are best referred to as Amur tigers, from the Amur river basin which has always been their homeland.

In mid-century, their numbers in Russia had been reduced to fewer than 50, although China and Korea still had many hundreds. The Soviet government initiated strict conservation measures, and by 1990 there were about 400 Amur tigers in Russia, while those in China and Korea had been reduced to a mere handful.

The collapse of the USSR created a new crisis for the Amur tiger. As the economy fell into disarray, law and order collapsed. People in the Russian Far East, traditionally hunters, began to compete with tigers for deer and wild boar as food. The tiger itself became a target because its bones and other body parts were in demand in China for medicine, while skins could be sold for as much as $10,000 in Japan and South Korea. Poaching reached levels between 1992 and 1994 that provoked fears of the Amur tiger's early extinction. A Russian minister declared that the tiger population had been reduced to fewer than 200. International organisations rushed aid to equip anti-poaching units, which proved effective in lessening poaching, while a ban in China strengthened border controls on the illegal trade in tiger products.

Tracking tigers

Meanwhile, Russian and American scientists studying tiger ecology used the winter snows of 1995-96 to track tigers and analyse their footprints in order to estimate numbers. The results were heartening: 330-371 adults and 85-94 cubs. Clearly the Amur tiger was surviving. Importantly, nearly all these tigers constitute a single sub-population in continuous forests in the territory of Primorye and part of Khabarovsk. This may be the largest single population left and from a genetic point of view it is a healthy situation.

Large blocks of potential tiger habitat also exist in south-east Asia, but the dense rain forests make counting tigers and other animals exceptionally difficult. Ground surveys suggest that tigers have been greatly reduced in numbers. But there could be more than thought; camera traps in Way Kambas National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have led to identification of 37 tigers where local people had scarcely seen any. On the other hand, camera-aided research in Myanmar (Burma) suggests that few tigers survive there.

India boasts more than half the world's surviving 5,000-7,500 tigers, but the population has been heavily fragmented by loss of habitat. Only three reserves are estimated to have over 100 tigers, and some have fewer than 30.

Has the wild tiger a future? The vulnerability of isolated small groups of tigers to poaching and genetic deterioration through inbreeding, along with continued habitat loss to human use, suggests that numbers will continue to decline. The larger sub-populations have a reasonable chance. But, ultimately, the tiger will only live on if people are willing to coexist with it. The tiger is potentially a danger to livestock and even to human lives. Effective management of tigers to minimise damage to human interests, along with wise behaviour to avoid confrontation, is necessary.

Extinction of the wild tiger would provoke a deep sense of loss among many people at the elimination of a powerful symbol of the natural world. Not only would it remove a key species from the web of life on which we all depend, but it would bode ill for the survival of other threatened wildlife, perhaps even for ourselves if the natural foundations of life continue to be destroyed.

Peter Jackson is Chairman Emeritus of the Cat Specialist Group at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Switzerland. More about cats

For information about the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and a review of the status of all the 36 species of wild cats contact Peter Jackson at: Route des Macherettes, 1172 Bougy, Switzerland. Tel/Fax: (+41 21) 808 6012, Email:

Cat News, the group newsletter is available for a minimum donation of SF50/$40 to Friends of the Cat Group, c/o Peter Jackson at the above address.

Peter Jackson is co-editor with Kristin Nowell of Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN, Gland (1996), £26.75/$40.00, available from: IUCN Publications Services Unit, 219c Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1223 277 894, Fax: +44 (0)1223 277 175, Email: Or: Island Press, Box 7, Covelo, CA 95428, USA. Tel: 800 828 1302 (toll free USA/Canada), Fax: (+1 707) 983 6414, Email: