Conservation News: Tigers, Rhinos, and Coral Reefs

Are There Really That Many Tigers?

Two weeks ago, the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum announced that “for the first time in 100 years, tiger numbers are growing” on April 10. They reported that the population jumped from 3,200 in 2010 to 3,890 today, with a high possibility to double within a decade. However, within days, tiger biologists issued a joint “statement of concern” countering this celebration with criticism about the report’s accuracy and conclusions.

This wasn’t the first time. In 2008, the census stated that 60% of India’s tigers vanished during the previous five years. However, instead of there being an actual significant decrease in population, it was because their previous estimates of tiger populations have been vastly overestimated. The 2008 census was the first time the Indian government used scientifically sound camera-trapping methods to count individual animals by their unique stripe patterns. Previous methods included using spoor (paw prints and scat) to count the tigers, which often led to the same animal being counted multiple times.

Steve Winter (National Geographic Creative)

The biologists who are criticizing the report are Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, director for Science Asia from Wildlife Conservation Society India, Dr. Dale Miquelle, director of Russia Program from Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. John Goodrich, director of Tiger Program from Panthera, and Dr. Arjun Gopalaswamy, research associate from University of Oxford.

Better camera trapping and DNA analysis in places like Bhutan identified new tigers. Expanded surveys in India now included tigers living outside reserves that were previously unaccounted for. Instead of WWF’s claim that the tigers are rebounding, John Goodrich stated that the growth in number is due to more complete and accurate data.

Some countries used questionable methods to count its tiger population. Russian researchers used paw prints, the same technique behind India’s overestimates. Others simply use old data. The experts say, “Studies have indicated that tiger recovery rates are slow. [These] estimates…are largely derived from weak methodologies and sometimes based on extrapolations from tiger spoor surveys, or such surveys alone.”

Despite considerable effort, money, and political will, tigers are slowly recovering in large, well-protected landscapes with plenty of prey. Overall, “tigers are still in peril,” says Prerna Bindra, a former member of India’s National Board for Wildlife. At the turn of the 20th century, some 100,000 tigers roamed wild throughout Asia. Today, tigers are fragmented across 7% of their former range. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia lost their native tiger populations while India’s landscapes, the tiger’s largest stronghold, are doomed by dams, mining, and other infrastructure.

They are recovering slowly in only some reserves where protection has improved. Outside of these sites lie vast ‘sink landscapes’ that are continuing to lose tigers and its habitats. “Taking these and other related factors into consideration, doubling of its population in the next 10 years is not a realistic proposition,” the biologists concluded. “Assuming 70%-90% of wild tigers are in source populations with slow growth, such an anticipated doubling of global tiger numbers would demand an increase between 364%-831% in these sink landscapes.”

Xi Zhinong (Minden Pictures/National Geographic)

In addition to habitat loss, poaching is the greatest threat to their survival. Demand for tiger parts is continuing to skyrocket. Belinda Wright, executive director of Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India, stated that “India’s tiger poaching and seizure figures for the first quarter of 2016 are the highest in the past 15 years.”

Though these experts criticize WWF’s report, they agree that if the demand for tiger products are significantly reduced and tigers in key breeding sites are heavily protected, the tiger species can still be saved.

Statement of Concern by Tiger Biologists

How Many Tigers Are There Really? A Conservation Mystery

Tiger Biologists Debunk Report on Increase in Population

Experts From Across Globe Trash WWF, GTF Report on Tiger Population

South Africa Keeping Rhino Horn Trade Illegal

Buying and selling rhino horn across South Africa’s borders have been prohibited since 1977, but illegal trade remains rampant. Demand soared in the early 2000s from wealthy Vietnamese customers when a rumor started that it had cured a politician’s cancer. Before that, traditional Chinese medicine drove demand. Others saw the horns as a status symbol to show off wealth. Yemen was also a major destination where the horns were used to make handles for the most expensive jambiyas, curved, double-edged daggers.

Rhino poaching has skyrocketed to match demands. A record of 1,338 were killed in 2015 throughout Africa compared to just over a dozen poached in 2007.

South Africa’s minister of the environment, Edna Molewa appointed the Committee of Inquiry to advise her on whether or not to propose lifting the ban at the next CITES conference, held in Johannesburg this September.

Brent Stirton (Getty/National Geographic)

Michael Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist who served on the committee, argued to legalize the trade. His argument was that the ban has failed to control poaching, but a tightly controlled legal trade would help stop poaching. One possible benefit from legalizing the trade is lowering the value of rhino horn and controlling supply and demand. Further it would “empower the people selling it so they will reinvest in rhino conservation,” says Rolfes.

Those against the legalization argue that it wouldn’t help conservation at all. Without a its’ stigma, more people would want it. Demand would go up with no additional supply, causing an increase in price. Conservationist Ronald Orenstein pointed to CITES’ experimental sale of ivory to China and Japan after the ivory trade had been banned where poaching went through the ceiling.

Thus, it was decided that South Africa will not propose ending the ban on the international rhino horn trade at the next major meeting of CITES, the body that regulates worldwide wildlife trade. Instead of trading, it will maintain its existing policy of stockpiling the horns.

South Africa Backs Away From Legal Rhino Horn Trade

South Africa won’t bid to have global ban on trade in rhino horn lifted

Great Barrier Reef’s Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching was always considered a serious issue in the Great Barrier Reef, but how extensive and widespread the issue was unclear until now. The Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Taskforce conducted extensive aerial surveys and dives at 911 sites spanning across the full 1,430 mile (2,300 kilometer) string of reefs along Australia’s northeast coast.

ARC Center of Excellence Coral Reef Studies

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900 smaller reefs. Of the 911 individual reefs that were surveyed, 93% or 843 reefs, were devastated by the  bleaching.  80% showed signs of severe bleaching, many found in the remote, pristine northern half of the reef. Early estimates suggest that about half of the bleached corals are dying in the northern reefs, and in some areas, up to 90%. The southern end of the reef fared better.

“It’s extremely depressing,” says Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program. “Having such a large area of the [Great Barrier Reef] affected this severely by bleaching, especially in the northernmost region where the corals are least affected by local human impact, is very troubling.”

Instead, the causes of coral bleaching are climate change, and El Niño, and ocean acidification. Climate change has warmed baseline ocean temperatures, combined with El Niño’s, increases the frequency of warming events severe enough to cause bleaching. Ocean acidification causes a decrease in carbonate ion levels which are needed to create the coral skeletons to house the polyps. Furthermore, the increased temperatures and acidity of the water cause corals’ symbiotic algae, their food source, to short-circuit and become toxic, forcing the corals to expel the algae. This turns the coral skeletons to white and on the path to starvation.

With the decline of Great Barrier coral reefs, it threatens the survival of 1,500 species of fish, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species (most of which are vulnerable to endangered), and 30 species of whales and dolphins that depend on the reefs as their homes.

What’s more is that this UNESCO World Heritage designated site is a tourism powerhouse and a huge economic benefit on the Austrian economy. It supports nearly 70,000 jobs and generates approximately five billion dollars, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.


The damage caused by this round of bleaching will be felt for decades. But what is more troubling is that this is only a fraction of a much broader regional epidemic. Coral bleaching is found across the Pacific Ocean since mid-2014, as warm waters have assailed reefs from American Samoa to Kiribati and French Polynesia.

“By the middle of the 21st century, we’re going to be seeing mild bleaching on most reefs around the world,” says Eakin. “If it takes decades for reefs to recover even under the best conditions, and bleaching events become more and more frequent, it doesn’t necessarily give reefs time to recover.”

2015 marked the third global coral bleaching event ever recorded, with this one as the longest and severe of the three.

93 Percent of the Great Barrier Reef Is Suffering

Bleaching Hits 93 Percent of the Great Barrier Reef

ARC Center of Excellence Coral Reef Studies


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