- The transition to cities by Asia’s human population is likely to affect the continent’s remaining tiger populations, according to a new study.
- Depending on policy decisions around migration, urbanization, education and economics, the trend toward urbanization could provide more space for tiger numbers to rebound.
- A team of researchers modeled five different “socioeconomic pathways” for the continent, showing that a focus on sustainable living could result in fewer than 40 million people living within the tiger’s range by the end of the century.
- But that number could also balloon to more than 106 million people if countries veer away from international cooperation and poor management of urbanization.
Whether Asia’s tiger populations bounce back, or they evaporate into the pages of history depends on the decisions humans make about how we live on this planet, new research suggests.
“If we want a world with tigers, forests, and wildness to persist beyond the 21st century, conservation needs to join forces with groups working to alleviate poverty, enhance education for girls, reduce meat consumption, and build sustainable cities,” Joe Walston, a co-author of the study and vice president of field conservation with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said in a statement.
The trend lines in recent history for the populations of humans and tigers in Asia are striking in their polarity: Since 1850, the number of people in Asia has ballooned more than 560 percent to 4.44 billion. Tiger (Panthera tigris) numbers, meanwhile, have plummeted from 100,000 in the early 1900s to fewer than 4,000 today, leading the IUCN to label them endangered. Knowing that these courses have been — and still are — inextricably linked, Walston and his colleagues set out to understand how decisions about our society and where we live might impact the conservation of tigers.
What’s unique about this point in history and the near future is that Asia sits on the precipice of a demographic transition — that is, a point at which the converging impacts of decreasing poverty, rising education levels and a move toward living in cities have led to people having fewer children. As a result, Asia’s population growth is leveling off.
“Urbanization and the subsequent human demographic transition is arguably the most important historical trend shaping the future of conservation,” Eric Sanderson, the study’s lead author and a WCS senior conservation ecologist, said in the statement.
In April 2018, Sanderson and Walston demonstrated that the global shift toward city living could reshape conservation. Instead of being built around stemming the hemorrhage of species loss, conservation could be focused on recovery, they wrote in a study published in the journal BioScience.
But the researchers on the current study, which is published in the March edition of the journal Biological Conservation, also know that the success of conservation efforts won’t simply hinge upon more humans moving to cities.
“Demographic futures, and the socioeconomic causes and consequences thereof, are notoriously difficult to predict,” Bryan Jones, one of the current study’s authors and a geographer at Baruch College in New York City, said in the statement. “As such, biophysical futures are similarly fraught with uncertainty.
“Our ability to understand the future will depend in part on how well we understand urbanization, in terms of both land use and demographic behavior,” Jones added.
So the team used a set of five “socioeconomic pathways” that lay out possible scenarios that might arise as a result of different policies on migration, urbanization, education and economics. The pathways, originally developed to predict greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, range from a future in which countries invest in sustainable technology and more efficient energy use, to one where the divide between the rich and the poor continues to grow, to another in which humans continue to use fossil fuels to power our world.
The team’s results show that, in the next 82 years, the sustainability scenario could lead to a peak in the population of people living inside the tiger’s range at about 63 million people around the year 2030. By 2100, the continuation of those “green” policies might result in that population tapering off to less than 40 million, 30 percent fewer than in 2010. That could provide tiger populations with more space to recover, and an education program aimed at tiger conservation within cities could engage urban inhabitants in supporting their comeback.
The fossil fuel-centered scenario could also lead to fewer than 40 million people living in tiger-range countries by the end of the century and more people would live in cities. However, without the emphasis on sustainability, the increase in urbanization would come at the expense of sprawl.
In contrast, if countries veer away from working together and instead dwell on their own interests — the “regional rivalries” scenario — paying little attention to managing urbanization, the researchers posit that more than 106 million people, or 85 percent more than in 2010, could be sharing tiger habitat by 2100.
Instead of being predictions for the future, these results represent what’s possible, not to mention what’s at stake, as these seismic changes ripple through Asia, the authors write.
“How that transition plays out is not pre-determined,” Sanderson said. “Rather it depends on the policy decisions that governments, and the societies they represent, take with respect to fundamental matters such as urban governance, education, economic reform, and the movement of people and trade goods. These decisions matter for us and tigers too.”
Banner image of a tiger caught on camera trap footage courtesy of TSFD WCS-India HyTiCoS.
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Sanderson, E. W., Moy, J., Rose, C., Fisher, K., Jones, B., Balk, D., … & Walston, J. (2019). Implications of the shared socioeconomic pathways for tiger (Panthera tigris) conservation. Biological Conservation, 231, 13-23.
Sanderson, E. W., Walston, J., & Robinson, J. G. (2018). From Bottleneck to Breakthrough: Urbanization and the Future of Biodiversity Conservation. BioScience, 68(6), 412-426.
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