The tiger conservation efforts in Asia have been so successful that they had an unintended -- and equally beneficial -- consequence of preventing further some greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, a new study finds.
Enhanced protection of Indian forests for tiger conservation has prevented 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions as a result of averted forest loss, according to a paper published Thursday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The highest proportion of the world's wild tigers -- Panthera tigris -- live in India. When the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority was established in 2005 to rehabilitate the country's dwindling tiger population, many of the tiger reserves were designated in the subsequent years, with the most recent ones being established in 2022, according to the researchers.
While the sites were already considered protected areas, the designation as tiger reserves resulted in enhanced monitoring and enforcement of forest protection. In addition, the tiger reserves were required to prepare a conservation plan that regulates forest product extraction, reduces deforestation drivers and encourages sustainable livelihoods for communities within the reserves.
Researchers compared rates of deforestation in tiger reserves to protected areas without the additional tiger protection and calculated that there was "significantly" less deforestation than what would have occurred without the enhanced protection in 11 of the 45 studied tiger reserves, according to the paper.
This forest conservation amounted to 5,802 hectares -- or more than 14,000 acres -- of net averted forest loss from 2007 to 2020, which the researchers estimate corresponds to net avoided carbon emissions of about 1.08 million metric tons.
India, the third-largest emitter in the world behind China and the U.S., released 2,442 million metric tons of total carbon dioxide emissions produced in 2020, according to the Global Carbon Atlas. In comparison, the amount of avoided carbon emissions from tiger conservation is "not massive," but is still significant, Aakash Lamba, a conservation scientist at the National University of Singapore's Center for Nature-based Climate Solutions and lead researcher of the paper, told ABC News.
The avoided deforestation could be worth about $6.24 million in carbon offsets and could represent about $92 million in ecosystem services from the avoided social cost of emissions in India, the researchers said.
Among the noteworthy results of the study was the finding that tiger conservation essentially pays for itself in terms of the avoided damages from climate change-related impacts, especially because India is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to the social cost of carbon, Lamba said.
Over the study period, more than a quarter of the annual expenditure on tiger conservation was paid back every year, in terms of avoided climate change impacts, the researchers found.
"Every additional tonne of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions leads to about $86 [U.S.] in damages to the Indian economy," Lamba told ABC News.
One of the reasons why tigers have flourished in Asian countries like Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is because these cultures tend to revere big cats, experts told ABC News last year.
In addition to the mythology, local communities, who tend of be the "custodians" of the tiger habitats, have emerged as key stakeholders in the conservation of the species, and are beginning to benefit from the ecotourism that has grown since the programs began. The conservation has become an "important way to enhance the livelihoods of the people who share their space with wild tigers," Lamba said.
Growing up in India, Lamba was "fascinated" by the big cat, he said.
"The tiger is one of the most charismatic and highly protected wild species in India," the paper states.
The findings show how protecting biodiversity on the planet with effective monitoring and management can benefit both species conservation and climate targets.
Traditionally, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation have been been addressed as "fairly separate issues, but they're quite intimately linked," Lamba said.
Researchers are continuing to gather empirical evidence to establish that link, Lamba added.