Tigers need room to stretch their paws. The massive felines require extensive tracts of land to hunt and find mates. Isolated pockets of wilderness won’t cut it.
If the tiger reserves of Asia were managed as large-scale ecosystems connected by corridors of wilderness, the tiger population could boom to triple its current number, according to a study published in Conservation Letters.
When preserves are fragmented, the big cats can’t find enough territory and can be wiped out more easily. Not only would preserving whole landscapes allow tigers to flourish, many other species would benefit as well.
“By saving the tiger we save all the plants and animals that live under the tiger’s umbrella,” said study co-author Dr. John Seidensticker of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
A massive tiger preserve would by necessity include the ecosystem the tigers depend on to survive, and that means thousands of other species would be protected.
“Tiger conservation is the face of biodiversity conservation and competent sustainable land-use management at the landscape level,” said Seidensticker.
Awareness of the need to preserve whole landscapes has been growing lately. Several recent studies covered by Discovery News have pointed to the need for conservation of high-quality habitat and functioning ecosystems, as opposed to massive tracts of wasteland or areas with low biodiversity.
The researchers found that the 20 most promising tiger landscape preserves could support 10,500 tigers, including 3,400 breeding females. They also pointed to historical examples of success. During civil conflict in Nepal, tiger numbers plummeted, but the cats did not disappear. Tigers from India were able to follow networks of wilderness to re-populate the area.
In the 1940′s tigers were nearly wiped out in eastern Russia, but tigers from northeast China repopulated the area. Russia’s tigers are currently returning the favor and moving back into China’s Changbaishan mountains after tiger populations there hit new lows in the 1990′s. A recently developed series of habitat corridors makes this migration possible.
A connected network of parks in India keeps a healthy population of 300 tigers in Nagarahole National Park and other connected preserves.
On the other hand, tigers were wiped out by poachers in Sariska and Panna tiger reserves in 2005 and 2009, but could not return on their own because the parks were isolated.
Tigers currently range across 13 Asian countries. The feline predators once numbered about 100,000 in the early 1900′s but current estimates are as low as 3,200. Tigers have died out due to poaching, habitat loss, and loss of prey to human hunters.
“We absolutely need to stop the bleeding, the poaching of tigers and their prey in core breeding areas, but we need to go much further and secure larger tiger landscapes before it is too late,” said World Wildlife Fund chief scientist Dr. Eric Dinerstein, a co-author of the study.
This study helps set a course to attain the goals of the International Tiger Conservation Forum, which was held in November 2010 in Russia. The gathering brought together 13 nations that host tiger territory. At the forum, the nations set the goal of doubling the world tiger population by 2022.
Another big cat that would benefit from landscape level protection is the jaguar of the Americas. The Path of the Jaguar project, spearheaded by Alan Rabinowitz, works to create a patchwork of parks, private lands and reserves that would allow jaguars to migrate from the United States to Brazil. This is important to maintain genetic diversity.
Jaguars once ranged from central California and east Texas to Argentina, but have lost much ground. The last known jaguar in the United States, called Macho B, died in 2009.
IMAGES: Bengal Tiger Cubs Play-Fighting; Looking at snow in the Switzerland tiger zoo; and having a drink in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. All photos from Corbis images.