Tigers in Peril

Wild tigers are in a "precarious state," as they face increased threats from poachers and a rapidly shrinking habitat, according to a new report.

A new study released by the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Save the Tiger Fund estimates that in the last decade, tigers have lost about 40 percent of their traditional habitat in Southeast Asia, India and Indochina.

"This is disturbing news," says Eric Dinerstein, a chief scientist with the World Wildlife Fund and an author of the study. "Another decade like the last will be catastrophic."

In addition to lost habitat, the report notes that increasing demand from China and Southeast Asia for tiger parts used in folk medicines and for exotic clothing and jewelry has fueled a booming poaching industry.

Even the Indian government -- which believed it had made recent progress protecting the big cats -- has now launched an investigation into widespread poaching on its tiger reserves, the report says.

'Tiger Conservation Landscapes' and Their Potential Obstacles

Tigers are now found on only 7 percent of the traditional range they occupied a century ago, according to the study.

The report recommends building partnerships with governments and local communities to create and maintain tiger conservation landscapes that use corridors through populated areas to link larger habitat areas, giving the animals the space they need.

Dinerstein points to the success of programs in the Russian Far East and in the Terai Arc Landscape in Nepal and India, where tigers have begun using the corridors and local communities have begun anti-poaching programs.

Still, experts say there will be conflicts as human populations expand into traditional tiger territory and the desire for wild tiger parts goes up.

"We need to find ways to make tigers worth more alive than dead," Dinerstein says.

Dinerstein says farmers could be compensated for livestock that tigers kill for food. There are plans, he says, to bring governments with a stake in tiger survival together for a "tiger summit" within the next 18 months. The summit will address the most pressing issues and strategies needed to save tigers from extinction.

No Fear of Extinction ... For Now

The good news, according to the report, is that tigers are resilient and are not expected to go extinct in the short term.

"It's actually a fast breeder provided there is an ideal habitat and enough prey to eat," says Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Save the Tiger Fund at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The tiger population could make a comeback.

"If you didn't control the feral cats in your neighborhood, they would be all over the place," Dinerstein says. "And tigers are just bigger feral cats. And if they've got enough to eat, they will be back."

The report did not say how many tigers are left in the wild. But experts estimate that the numbers are between 3,000 and 5,000, which is down from the 5,000 to 7,000 estimated just a decade ago.

Remarkably, there may be more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas alone than in the wild, according to officials. According to Austin Zoo director Cindy Carroccio, there are anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 tigers in the state at any given time -- and most are kept illegally.

"There used to be a guy who would sell them by the road down in San Antonio," she says.