Tiger Recovery Called Into Question By Biologists

A group of scientists called out the WWF over a recent assessment

Apr 20, 2016 at 4:46 PM ET

The World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum recently reported that the global tiger population was on the rise. Good news! Except, a group of tiger biologists have come out against both organizations’ figures, saying that they do not find the “report and its implications scientifically convincing.” (Bad news.)

On April 10, the WWF, citing data from the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN), said that tiger numbers have grown to 3,890—a marked increase from estimates in 2010 that put the number at “as few as 3,200.” The positive change was attributed to better surveys and protection efforts, as well as population increases in countries such as India, Russia, Nepal and Bhutan. “This offers us great hope and shows that we can save species and their habitats when governments, local communities and conservationists work together,” Marco Lambertini, WWF International’s director general, said in a statement.

But biologists are cautioning against making such sweeping statements about the animal’s fragile population—especially when the data being used is unreliable. “Having devoted years of our lives to trying to understand and save wild tigers, we believe their conservation should be guided by the best possible science. Using flawed survey methodologies can lead to incorrect conclusions, an illusion of success and slackening of conservation efforts, when in reality grave concern is called for,” a group of tiger experts recently wrote. They said that 70 percent of tigers currently occupy only 10 percent of the remaining 1.2 million hectares of tiger habitat left, adding that tigers that live outside of these “source zones” are at grave risk.

Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India program, said that while tiger numbers have increased in reserves in India over the last 40 years, as well as areas outside the country, the situation for tiger recovery does not look great at present. “The landscape and country wide numbers which are generated by officials of various countries and regurgitated by WWF-GTF combine are totally unreliable because of deep statistical flaws that arise from the very nature of tiger spoor surveys,” he told Vocativ in an email. “This has been clearly demonstrated in a paper by some of us, published last year. Science should not get so long to get absorbed into conservation practice.”

In response to the biologists, WWF published a statement. The organization said, firstly, that the biologists incorrectly stated that WWF claimed tiger populations are on “track for a doubling in a decade.” WWF also said that it gathered its figures and determined its numbers from IUCN Red List numbers, as well as national surveys published by India, Russia, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Still, WWF recognized (perhaps) that its assessment may have been a bit over-confident. “WWF shares the concerns of authors of the statement that tiger population data should be based on the best scientific data available and that the increase in tiger numbers should be balanced with recognition of the severe threats that tigers continue to face, that some populations have been decimated over the last five years and that serious rates of habitat loss still threaten tigers and tiger population recovery,” the statement said.