A more practical way to save tigers

provided by Society for Conservation Biology

Tigers used to be abundant across much of Asia but today fewer than 6,000 are left. These great cats could die out in much of their range as biologists debate the best approach to saving them. A new method for conserving tigers that transcends these debates is proposed by Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington DC and 10 coauthors in the August issue of Conservation Biology.

This is the first range-wide plan for conserving tigers in the wild.

The traditional approach to tiger conservation focuses on saving subspecies. However, this approach is impeded by the fact that there is no consensus on the number of tiger subspeciessome biologists think there are eight, some think there are none and some even think there are two distinct species of tigers.

The common-sense approach proposed by Dinerstein and his colleagues cuts through these laboratory-based distinctions. "We say the most important thing is to preserve the role of tigers in natural communities," says Dinerstein. Conservationists can save the species' genetic diversity and behavioral adaptations by protecting areas that represent all tiger habitats. The tremendous variety of habitats ranges from riverine grasslands where the vegetation is more than 20 feet tall to tidal islands in mangrove swamps to the mountainous taiga of the Russian far east.

To choose the representative tiger habitats, the researchers ranked 159 areas in India and southeast Asia according to the degree of habitat degradation and fragmentation, the level of poaching of both tigers and their prey, and the abundance and trends of the tiger population.

Dinerstein and his colleagues identified 25 high-quality and 21 medium-quality areas that represent the range of tiger habitats, and recommend that international efforts focus on protecting these areas. Currently, only small parts of these high-priority tiger conservation areas are protected from poaching and habitat degradation.

If these areas can be protected, there is hope for the tiger. "Tigers breed faster than their prey and therefore can rebound very quickly," says Dinerstein.

This method of setting conservation priorities can be applied to any declining species (including black rhinoceroses, cheetahs and wolves) that lives in a wide range of habitat types.

  For more information, contact Eric Dinerstein (202) 778-9616, eric.dinersteinwwfus.org. Society for Conservation Biology can be found at http://conbio.rice.edu/scb/.