The 6% Solution

Sometimes you have to think small to think big. Focusing tiger conservation efforts on just 6% of the big cats’ remaining range could pull the species back from the brink of extinction, according to a new analysis by a group of leading tiger experts. They are urging global leaders to adopt the “6% solution” at a Tiger Summit set for Russia in November.

Tiger numbers have plummeted over the last few decades due to hunting and habitat destruction, the team notes in the current issue of PLoS Biology. Fewer than 3,500 animals remain in the wild, occupying less than 7% of their historical range. The cats have remained relatively safe in a handful of intensively-managed reserves, however, particularly in India.

To save the species, the experts say governments should extend such intensive care to 42 “source sites” – small chunks of land across southern Asia with large enough tiger populations to repopulate surrounding areas. In choosing the sites, the team looked for areas with the potential to maintain at least 25 breeding females, and surrounding habitat that could support at least 50 females. The researchers also picked sites in nations that have an existing conservation infrastructure, and tiger protection laws. Most are in India (18), Sumatra (8) and in the Russian Far East (6). Overall, the researchers calculated that the 42 sites contain 70% of all wild tigers – but cover less than 100,000 square kilometers, or just 6% of the tiger’s current range.

“Strategies to save the tiger must focus first and foremost on protecting these remaining concentrations of tigers,” the team writes. “The recovery of populations in source sites alone would result in a 70% increase in the world’s tiger population.” And the strategy would be a bargain, they add: The total cost could be as little as $82 million per year, or just $35 million more than the world is already spending on tiger conservation. Whether global leaders will be willing to pick up the tab, however, won’t be known until the Summit, which just happens to coincide with the Chinese Year of the Tiger. David Malakoff

Source: Walston, J., Robinson, J., Bennett, E., Breitenmoser, U., da Fonseca, G., Goodrich, J., Gumal, M., Hunter, L., Johnson, A., Karanth, K., Leader-Williams, N., MacKinnon, K., Miquelle, D., Pattanavibool, A., Poole, C., Rabinowitz, A., Smith, J., Stokes, E., Stuart, S., Vongkhamheng, C., & Wibisono, H. (2010). Bringing the Tiger Back from the Brink—The Six Percent Solution PLoS Biology, 8 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000485

Image © Andy Gehrig