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Urbanization May Hold Key To Tiger Survival

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A new WCS-led study published in the journal Biological Conservation
says the future of tigers in Asia is linked the path of demographic
transition–for humans. The study marks the first-of-its-kind analysis
that overlays human population scenarios with the fate of these
endangered big cats.

Prior to the 20th century, some experts estimate there were more
than 100,000 tigers living in the wild; today that number is between
3000 – 4000. At the same, over the last 150 years, the human population
of Asia as grown from 790 million to over 4 billion, with dire
consequences for tigers and other wildlife.

But these trends are changing. The demographic transition is the
process by which human populations peak and then go down. The
researchers looked at different scenarios of economic, education,
migration, and urbanization policy. In 2010, 57 million people lived in
areas defined as “tiger conservation landscapes” that contained all of
the world’s remaining wild tigers. However, by 2100, depending on
population trends, as few as 40 million people could be sharing space
with tigers, or it could be as many as 106 million.

Different population scenarios depend on the course of the
demographic transition. Over the long-term, the scenarios associated
with the lowest human populations are also associated with the greatest
levels of urbanization and education. At the same time, urban
consumption is the source of many of the threats to tigers. Therefore,
the authors say conservation authorities must engage with people in
cities to save tigers, while continuing to support site-level protection
efforts around tiger source sites.

Said lead author Eric Sanderson, Senior Conservation Ecologist
with WCS: “Urbanization and the subsequent human demographic transition
is arguably the most important historical trend shaping the future of
conservation. How that transition plays out is not pre-determined.
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.”

Said co-author and WCS Senior Vice President of Field
Conservation Joe Walston: “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.”

Said co-author Professor Bryan Jones of Baruch College:
“Demographic futures, and the socioeconomic causes and consequences
thereof, are notoriously difficult to predict. As such, biophysical
futures are similarly fraught with uncertainty. Understanding the
consequences of different pathways, driven in large part by policy
decisions, is crucial to developing a conservation strategy to protect
the planets most endangered habitats. 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.”

The paper builds on a 2018 WCS study that found that the enormous
trends toward population stabilization, poverty alleviation, and
urbanization are rewriting the future of biodiversity conservation in
the 21st century, offering new hope for the world’s wildlife and wild
places.

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