Recently, WWF and the Global Tiger Forum reported that global tiger numbers had risen for the first time in a century, expanding from 3,200 to 3,890 worldwide. Media outlets around the world, including ourselves, were excited to report rare good news from the conservation world. However, a group of biologists are highlighting that these reports of global tiger increase could be no more than estimates and wishful thinking, based on questionable scientific method or a lack of it altogether.

The confusion came from WWF, who reported the increase with delight. The WWF’s senior vice president for conservation, Ginette Hemley, said, “We’re positively surprised by the numbers, which validate what we thought has been happening thanks to conservation efforts.” However, the statement was not backed up by scientific evidence.

Then why did the WWF announce the increase? The reason may actually be political, as the new claims conveniently arose just before the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference of Tiger Conservation. It turns out that Hemley was simply trying to provide encouragement before the conference. “When you have high-level political commitments, it can make all the difference,” she said of the increase.

Between stating that the numbers increased thanks to population increase and better protection, WWF also stated that ‘survey methods’ had changed.  “The tools we are using now are more precise than they were six years ago,” Hemley told The New York Times.

“That nuance got lost along the way, as it was perhaps intended to do,” argues wildlife biologist Richard Conniff on his blog.

Reports of an increase could be more to do with better surveying technique, rather than significant population growth due to conservation. However,  John Goodrich, the senior tiger program director of Panthera, a global organisation to protect wild cats, told Conniff that “there aren’t really any scientists connected with [the report], and we don’t know the sources of the data that they’re basing it on—not yet, and I doubt we will.”

Goodrich clarified that there are “only two countries that have comprehensive surveys of tiger habitat: Nepal and Bhutan.”

Additionally, Conniff points out that K. Ullas Karanth and Dale Miquelle, directors of the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with University of Oxford zoologist Arjun Gopalaswamy, said in a public statement that the news was no more than “an illusion of success.” They added that, “glossing over serious methodological flaws, or weak and incomplete data to generate feel-good ‘news’ is a disservice to conservation.”

Whilst there is a smattering of good news – tiger numbers have increased in the Western Ghats mountains of India, Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand – the tiger biologists stress that it mustn’t be forgotten that tigers today still only occupy 7% of their original range.

If governments can end poaching, and protect habitats, then tigers may be saved. Yet for now, until accurate scientific surveys are conducted, the question of whether or not global tiger numbers are rising will remain unanswered.

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Check out Richard Conniff’s very informative article and additional information here.