From bouncing Tigger to The Jungle Book’s cunning Shere Khan, we’ve loved tigers ever since we were children. They’re majestic, athletic, beautiful to look at (albeit from a safe distance!) and one of the most awe-inspiring predators around. But sadly, tiger numbers have long been worryingly low. In fact, by the year 2010, as few as 3,200 tigers remained in the wild, meaning we’ve lost 95 per cent of wild tigers in the last century.
However, thanks to a lot of hard work by many tiger-loving individuals and organisations, tiger populations have slowly started to improve, as last year saw the number of wild tigers increase slightly for the first time in 100 years.
This is all brilliant news in the fight to save the big cat species, but lots more still needs to be done to ensure these wonderful wild cats are around for future generations to enjoy.
Becci May, Regional Manager for Asian Big Cats at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has spent many years carrying out vital conservation work to help improve the fortunes of these incredible creatures.
“I’ve worked with WWF for more than 20 years and on big cats, including tigers, leopards and snow leopards, for the last five. A lot of my work involves going out to countries where we support tiger conservation work such as Nepal, India, China, Russia and Bhutan.
“While my work is all about looking after tigers, most of my time is spent talking to the people,
nature reserve managers, communities and governments, who can make a difference to tiger populations. For example, one big project we’re doing at the moment in Nepal is in the beautiful Chitwan National Park. We work with the rangers and army who protect the tigers in the park, helping provide the training and equipment they need to patrol and protect against poachers more effectively.”
Poaching is still one of the biggest threats facing tigers today as they’re hunted for their beautiful skins and other body parts that are sold on the black market, or used in traditional medicine, folk remedies or even as status symbols.
Habitat destruction is another major factor affecting tiger numbers as new infrastructure and growing populations in developing areas destroy the regions tigers call home. While tigers used to roam most of Asia, they’re now restricted to just seven per cent of their original range in isolated forests and grasslands across 13 countries.
“Sometimes, tigers live near where a lot of people live and as regions grow, new roads and rail developments become particularly concerning for us as this could divide the tiger habitat and the homes of other wildlife they interact with and rely on.
"Nevertheless, we try to find ways for tigers and people to live together more harmoniously. This might mean something like helping communities buy biogas stoves so they don’t have to keep going into the forest to cut down firewood which has damaging effects on tigers. Or we might try to make a difference by lobbying political bodies to change things in their country. Our work is as much about improving people’s livelihoods and finding benefits for them as it is working with tigers.”
Becci’s work is all a vital part of a much bigger initiative started in 2010 at a huge tiger summit with 13 governments and organisations who all made a pledge to double the number of tigers in the wild – to around 6,000 – by the year 2022. Teams like Becci’s keep track of progress on this goal by using camera traps and looking for evidence of tiger paw prints or tiger droppings in specific areas.
And ensuring tiger numbers are up doesn’t just benefit tigers. As tigers are top-predators, they prey on herbivores (plant-eaters) who, if there aren’t enough tigers to control their numbers, would over-graze and damage the land, disrupting the balance of the local environment.
“While I don’t see tigers that often in my work as they hide themselves well, I did see one stalking a porcupine a few years ago in India and it was just amazing. They’re so beautiful and have such power and grace.
“I really love feeling like I make a difference with WWF and it was fantastic last year when we received the news that tiger numbers were finally rising a bit.
"Now I just want to carry on the work and help us push to double tiger numbers by 2022.”
Grrrreat tiger facts!
- Tiger cubs are born blind and only open their eyes after six-14 days
- Tigers have soft toe-pads which allow them to walk silently through their habitat
- Tigers can catch prey at least five times their own body weight
- A tiger will typically travel between six and 12 miles during a night’s hunting
- When tigers greet each other, they make a soft greeting called ‘prusten’ which sounds something like the snorting of a horse!
If you would like to help WWF carry out their work conserving tigers you can become a Tiger Protector for £5 a month. To find out more, call 01483 426333 or visit wwf.org.uk/tigerprotector