How did the global tiger population increase for the first time in a century?

After a century of decline, the world's total number of tigers has begun to rise, although conservation efforts for the endangered species still have a long way to go.

Jay LaPrete/AP Images for DHL/File
Jae-Jae, a male Sumatran tiger, after being transported to ZSL London Zoo in 2012 for a breeding conservation program.

Following decades of marked decline, the global tiger population is finally beginning to show signs of growth.

Conservationists say that since 2010 the population for the world's biggest cats has slightly risen, the first such increase they have had in about 100 years, a period during which tigers lost more than 90 percent of their global range.

The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) and the Global Tiger Forum (GTF) announced that after a 2010 estimate placed the global tiger count "as low as 3,200," conservation efforts and a population rebound have increased that number to around 3,890 – still nowhere near the 100,000 wild Asian cats alive in the early 20th century, but nonetheless a step in the right direction.

The recent rebound comes in spite of threats to tigers' habitats and constant poaching. The species is still listed as endangered and wildlife experts say that more work will be needed to maintain or increase the amount of tigers in the wild going forward.

"For the first time after decades of constant decline, tiger numbers are on the rise. This offers us great hope and shows that we can save species and their habitats when governments, local communities and conservationists work together," Marco Lambertini, the director general of WWF International, said in a statement.

The population report was released ahead of the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in India, where representatives from the 13 countries with wild tigers will meet to discuss the animals' conservation on their lands.

The new numbers also come on the heels of a report released last week concerning researchers' use of satellite imaging to analyze and monitor tiger ranges across Asia, finding a lesser loss than anticipated over the past decade and the potential for "a range-wide doubling of the wild tiger population" if forest restoration and reintroduction efforts succeed.

As a response to the 2010 estimates on the world's low tiger count, a summit was called that year resulting in national governments within Asia's tiger range agreeing to double the global tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger on the Chinese astrological calendar. While ambitious, this new population information and satellite monitoring methodology show that such a goal may be possible.

"A strong action plan for the next six years is vital," WWF Tx2 tiger initiative leader Michael Baltzer said. "The global decline has been halted but there is still no safe place for tigers. Southeast Asia, in particular, is at imminent risk of losing its tigers if these governments do not take action immediately."

Despite the overall gains, the species was recently declared "functionally extinct" in Cambodia by the WWF as there are no longer breeding populations of the big cats there. Currently only 12 countries across Asia are home to the animals in nature, although Cambodia hopes to institute a program that would bring its tiger count back up. And while countries with major tiger populations such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Russia made gains over the past years, there are still trouble spots throughout Asia. Aside from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam currently have single-digit tiger populations, and Bangladesh's numbers have dropped by hundreds since 2010.

"This report shows great momentum, but I would caution people in thinking that we’re on an unchangeable path toward recovery," the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative manager Luke Dollar said. "The stakes continue to be great and tigers remain at risk of global loss."

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