Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Read Caption

The Indochinese tiger (pictured) is a subspecies growing in number.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Tigers Making a Comeback in Parts of Asia

Strong government actions helping the big cat, scientists say.

Tigers are making a comeback, thanks to strong government initiatives in India, Thailand, and Russia, scientists announced this week.

Joe Walston, executive director for Asia Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), praised the three countries for taking action to protect their tiger populations. The animals are endangered globally. (See tiger pictures.)

There are six remaining subspecies of tiger that live in 13 Asian countries—a habitat that's reduced by 93 percent from their historic range.

"There are a number of factors that are necessary for tigers to come back, but without true government commitment, there will not be any success," Walston said.

Taking Steps to Save Tigers

In India's Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, for example, a combination of strict antipoaching patrols, surveillance, voluntary relocation of people away from tiger habitats, and scientific monitoring have helped the big cats rebound to the point where they have saturated the two national parks.

This success is only possible because the Indian state of Karnataka is dedicated to conserving tigers, Walston said. (Learn about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)

In Russia, government officials are drafting a new law that makes the transport, sale, and possession of endangered animals a criminal offense rather than just a civil crime. This closes a loophole that currently allows poachers to claim they found endangered species like tigers already dead.

Russia also recently announced that it was creating a new corridor for safe tiger passage called the Central Ussuri Wildlife Refuge, which would link tiger breeding strongholds in Russia and China. (Related blog: "Protecting Russia's Last Siberian Tigers.")

Corridors "allow tigers to move between different areas to breed and connect up," Walston explained. "This makes for larger, more robust, and genetically healthy populations."

In Thailand, enforcement and antipoaching patrols have been beefed up in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2011 the government busted a notorious poaching ring, and this year the gang leaders were given prison sentences of up to five years—the most severe prison sentences for wildlife poaching in Thailand's history. Since the gang's capture, there have been no known tiger or elephant poaching incidents in the park. (Read about a live tiger cub that was found in luggage in Thailand.)

What's more, "Thailand last year had a poaching problem, and instead of ignoring it, the government recognized the problem and hired 60 new rangers," Walston said.

Tigers Can Bounce Back

But these three success stories are rare bright spots for the endangered species, whose numbers continue to hover at all-time lows worldwide due to the combined threats of poaching, loss of prey, and habitat destruction.

Conservationists estimate that only 3,200 tigers exist in the wild. (See a National Geographic magazine interactive of big cats in danger.)

Even so, Walston said the successes in India, Thailand, and Russia prove that tigers are not doomed—and he hopes other countries will take notice.

"This is not a species that is on an inevitable decline ... They are coming back in some places," he said.

Walston also pointed out that saving tigers has other benefits.

"When we conserve tigers, we're actually conserving a whole host of species that are maybe not as charismatic or iconic but are equally valuable—and equally threatened," he said.