NEW DELHI (AP) — Countries with wild tiger populations have agreed to do more to protect tiger habitats that are shrinking drastically because of deforestation and urban sprawl, conservationists said Friday.
Representatives from the 13 Asian countries with tigers, meeting this week in New Delhi, issued a resolution acknowledging that the forests in which tigers live are inherently valuable themselves and worthy of protection.
These forests can help preserve economic growth by safeguarding water supplies, improving air quality and providing homes for not only tigers but also birds, frogs and other mammals.
"Before, there's always been this conflict of development versus conservation, as if countries had to choose," said Sejal Worah, the program director for World Wildlife Fund in India.
"But in this resolution, it clearly states that natural capital is important to the economy of a country," she said. "Countries understand that preserving tiger habitats does not compromise growth. And that's important. That's new."
The world's tiger countries are all in Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. India has the most by far, with about 2,500. None of the others have more than 500 and some have just a few.
Many of the countries have growing human populations and fast-developing economies. By 2022, they want to double the world's wild tiger population from the all-time low of 3,200 hit in 2010.
On Monday, conservation groups announced that the world's tiger count had gone up to 3,890, according to 2014-15 survey data. That marked the first increase in the wild population census in more than a century. But that did not necessarily mean there were more tigers in the wild. The higher number may just mean scientists are getting better at counting them, with more sophisticated survey methods including camera traps and DNA analysis of scat.
An actual increase in wild tiger populations would also be hard to reconcile with the fact that their habitat is shrinking so fast. In just the last five years, tigers lost a full 40 percent of their remaining natural habitat, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"The tiger is still teetering on the brink of extinction, and a too-hasty celebration of an increase in tiger numbers will only disservice efforts for the species' conservation," said John Goodrich, tiger program director at the New York-based big cat conservation group Panthera.
He and other tiger biologists said it was unrealistic to think the world could double its wild tiger population by 2022, unless tiger landscapes were vastly increased. Today, tigers roam across just 7 percent of their historical range.
"Rather than engaging in these tiger number games that distract them from reality, conservationists must now focus on enhancing and expanding recovery and monitoring of source populations, while protecting their remaining habitat and their linkages,"Goodrich and the other biologists wrote.
Cambodia this year declared its tiger population "functionally extinct," meaning it had no breeding tigers left in the wild. While in New Delhi this week, Cambodia's agriculture minister reportedly looked into repopulating the Southeast Asian country with Indian tigers.
India is ready to help, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said. "India is willing to cooperate with any country which does not have or has lost its tiger population in the course of history," he said Thursday.
India, home to about two-thirds of the world's wild tigers, also agreed to strengthen controls against cross-border wildlife crimes, including trafficking in animals and animal parts such as tiger skins and bones and rhino horns.
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