Satellite data shows new hope for endangered tiger populations

Satellite data is proving a useful tool for protecting tiger habitat and could not only help double wild tiger populations by 2022 but also lay the groundwork for helping other vulnerable species, too.

Sue Palminteri
A tiger looking for boar in Bandhavgarh National Park in India.

Tigers could be on course for doubling their numbers in the wild, according to a new study.

The research, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, used satellite imagery to measure the decline from 2001-2014 of tiger habitat in the 13 countries that host wild tigers, finding that the loss was far less than anticipated.

Because of the vast tracts of land involved, and the myriad jurisdictions, a significant challenge has been in monitoring the situation, but the researchers involved in this latest study hope they have found a solution not only for tigers, but one that can be replicated to the benefit of other species, too.

"After St. Petersburg, a group of scientists asked whether this idea of doubling the wild tiger population was even possible," says lead author Anup Joshi of the University of Minnesota, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

At the 2010 International Tiger Conservation Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, nations and conservation groups agreed to take steps to double the world tiger population.

They identified 76 tiger conservation landscapes, including 29 crucial ones, which would need monitoring at least every two years.

But the question was how this monitoring would take place. Certainly, there have been efforts to comply, but it has been something of a piecemeal approach, with no study considering the entirety of the tiger landscapes at one time – until now.

"The best way to do this, to cover these huge areas, is by remote sensing – satellite data," Dr. Joshi tells the Monitor. "Bear in mind, most of these countries are developing, with limited resources."

But with the explosion of computer power, cloud storage and mobile technology in recent years, undertaking such complex analysis is no longer only within the purview of a privileged minority.

The researchers determined to both take advantage of this for their own work, and lay the groundwork for popular participation going forward.

They used a resource that combines freely available information from NASA satellites and the processing power of Google Earth to provide constantly updated analysis of the world’s forests: Global Forest Watch.

"From our perspective, it is remarkable and unexpected that only 7.7 percent of the [tiger] range was lost to conversion over the study period," write Joshi et al.

Predicted habitat loss had been much higher for two main reasons: First, the 13 countries involved are some of the "fastest-growing economies in the world"; second, many of the 29 highest-priority Tiger Conservation Landscapes are surrounded by areas "supporting the highest rural population densities on Earth."

"This shows that the efforts of the governments and the park authorities are real," says Joshi. "If they weren’t, there would have been much more loss. But while this is undoubtedly good news, we did still lose areas, so we need to keep working."

Global Forest Watch will form part of that drive, helping to make the process of monitoring as transparent as possible. Already, it has added a tiger layer to its interactive mapping, allowing anyone with Internet access to monitor the state of the tiger conservation landscapes.

Users can sign up for alerts about a given region, which will inform them of any significant change in forest cover. And, going forward, Joshi and his colleagues hope that such systems will become even more interactive, allowing people on the ground to submit updates as well, supplementing the satellite data.

And yet forest cover (habitat) represents just one of the factors affecting tiger populations, which currently total a mere 3,500 wild individuals, the others being prey abundance and the threat of poaching.

But even in the face of poaching – the biggest threat to tigers, according to Joshi – there is hope. The professor mentions an anti-poaching community group in Nepal, by way of example, which voluntarily reports poaching activities to the authorities.

"If there’s commitment, it can be done," says Joshi. "The targets can be reached."

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