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Saving Tigers From Extinction, With A Little Help From Satellites

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The world has lost almost 8% of forest crucial for tigers over a 14-year span, with the largest losses occurring in Indonesia and Malaysia due to the expansion of industrial agriculture.

A new study estimates that global forest clearing since 2001 led to the loss of habitat that could have supported some 400 tigers. This is potentially devastating, considering the current global tiger population is fewer than 3,500 individuals.

There is good news, however – enough tiger habitats remain to stop the big cat’s slide towards extinction, provided the remaining forest is effectively monitored and protected.

The new study, “Tracking changes and preventing loss in critical tiger habitat” was recently published in Science Advances. It is the combined effort of re­sear­chers from the University of Minnesota, Stanford Univer­sity, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Rainforest Alliance, Resolve and World Resources Institute. They had used Google Earth Engine to process huge amounts of satellite imagery and data from Global Forest Watch to analyse forest losses between 2001 and 2014 at 76 Tiger Conservation Land­scapes, which are sites important for conservation of wild tigers.


Lost habitat

They found a decline of around 80,000sqkm (7.7%) in the tiger territories, with almost three-quarters of the loss occurring in 10 of the 29 areas deemed as priority tiger landscapes. The rest showed little change. In the three largest landscapes (Russian Far East–China, Northern Forest Complex–Namdapha–Royal Manas and the Tenasserims), the losses were less than 4% (24,800 sq km).

The greatest reduction in tiger habitat was seen in three sites and mainly driven by expanding plantations: Bukit Tigapuluh (67% loss since 2001) and Kerinci Seblat (17%) in Sumatra, and Taman Negara-Belum in Penin­sular Malaysia (22%). The affected area in Malaysia are forests adjacent to the protected Taman Negara and Royal Belum State Park. Satellite data also shows that in Indonesia and Malaysia, over 17,000 sq km of plantation land overlaps with 14 known tiger territories.

The impact of the habitat decline is devastating as the lost habitat in Bukit Tigapuluh could have supported 50 tigers. The Cambodian northern plains landscape, which contains five large reserves of tropical dry forest, lost habitat that could support over 170 tigers.

The researchers, however, found that the decline in tiger habitat was below what was ex­pected, given that most tiger habitats are within highly-populated and fast-growing economies which also face severe pres­sures from industrial agriculture.

The researchers say enough wild habitat remains to support doubling of the tiger population in the future provided we do things right: prevent further habitat losses; restore key corridors in deforested landscapes; implement smart green infrastructure; and translocate and reintroduce tiger populations where necessary.

Thanks to preservation of habitat in countries like Nepal and India, tiger populations in those countries have already increased 61% and 31%, respectively.

Satellite data

The study was made possible by free availability of satellite imagery, cloud computing services, and interactive web tools which enabled the researchers to analyse 14 years of high-resolution global forest loss data across 76 landscapes that span 13 countries. They say the advancement of technology has removed constraints of storage capacity and processing speeds needed to au­to­­mate analysis over big data sets.

New tools such as Google Earth Engine and Global Forest Watch make complex analyses of global data accessible through a free, user-friendly interface. Their combined technology makes annual updates of forest cover change available to scientists and wildlife officials.

Previously, monitoring tiger habitat was restricted by limited accessibility of spatial data, vast demands of computing power, and a lack of technical knowledge of remote sensing. Now, changes in tiger habitats can be calculated in a single corridor, protected areas, or any of the 76 landscapes by conservationists without technical training in remote sensing.

Explore the maps of tiger habitat and tree cover change at


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