This week’s update of the number of tigers estimated to live in the wild, which increased the count from 3,200 to 3,890 big cats, earned headlines around the world. But despite the potentially good news, all is not well for tigers. They still face a highly uncertain future—so much so that the iconic felines will undoubtedly disappear in several countries over the next few years.

The threats to tigers come in all kinds of stripes. Here are six of the most pressing.

1. Poachers

Some tiger populations may be stable or growing, but none are safe. Last month the Environmental Investigation Agency reported “a worrying upsurge” in tiger poaching and trafficking of tiger parts in India and Nepal. Over the previous five months, law enforcement agencies investigated at least 25 cases representing 33 tigers.

The EIA report is just the tip of the iceberg. The French NGO Robin des Bois releases a massive quarterly report that documents wildlife trafficking cases and related crimes around the world. Their most recent report, for the fourth quarter of 2015, lists cases representing at least 14 dead tigers in India and other countries and one live cub rescued from traffickers in Russia.

Some of the cases listed by EIA and Robin des Bois probably overlap, but it doesn’t matter. Think about the EIA report by itself: they found that in just five months in just two countries, 0.85 percent of the entire world population of wild tigers was slaughtered and carved up for sale.

Quite simply, there is no way tigers can sustain this level of losses and continue to survive in the wild.

2. Habitat Loss

Tigers need a lot of room. They’re solitary animals that wander many kilometers a day in search of food. The habitats that can contain these big, highly mobile cats face numerous threats from deforestation and development. Although a study earlier this month revealed that there’s probably enough habitat left to support twice the number of wild tigers that we have today (still a 94 percent decrease from historic levels), this conflicts with data published by the IUCN last year that found tigers have actually lost 40 percent of their current habitat over the past 10 years.

The habitat that remains doesn’t include many huge blocks of protected land. It’s mostly little “islands” of isolated forest surrounded by roads, farms, towns and other human developments. This not only restricts and isolates tiger populations, many of which are quite small—some contain just a dozen cats—it also increases their risk. “There may be a lot of empty tiger habitat, but if it’s fragmented into chunks surrounded by threats,” says J.A. Mills, author of Blood of the Tiger. “It is rarely, if ever, safe haven.”

We’ve seen some progress in this area—India is actually creating new reserves in hopes that tigers will occupy them as young animals disperse from current populations—but when you factor in ongoing habitat loss throughout Southeast Asia, the total picture remains grim.

3. Subspecies

As I wrote earlier in the week, the 3,890 number does not reflect tiger subspecies. Now, right now tigers are recognized as six distinct subspecies, although there’s also a taxonomic debate as to whether that should be revised down to just two subspecies (one for the mainland and a second for island tigers). Either way, the numbers show that most of these sub-populations remain highly at risk.

Let’s see how the 3,890 number breaks down according to the currently accepted tiger subspecies list:






























No current data available













Global Total


With this in mind, we see that the Bengal tiger is the only subspecies with a fairly healthy population overall. The rest all struggle to hold on. (The South China tiger subspecies isn’t on this list because it’s already extinct in the wild and only exists in captivity.)

When we spoke last week, Ginette Hemley, senior VP of wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, told me that tiger subspecies don’t have a huge amount of genetic variation, but they are uniquely adapted to their habitats. Some live in moist tropical forests, others in dry forests, some live at elevations of up to 10,000 feet while others live in marshes and wetlands. “You’ve got this fascinating array of adaptations, which underscores their incredible uniqueness as a species and their adaptability,” Hemley said, “but also why you’ve got to protect habitat in order to protect tigers.”

4. Genetics

With populations fragmented and numbers shrinking, we do need to worry about tigers’ genetic health. As I reported back in 2009, wild Amur tigers in Russia—which are all descended from just 50 animals—face a potential genetic bottleneck that could, in the future, lead to defects and abnormalities. That doesn’t appear to have happened yet, but we’ve seen the same issue in Florida panthers so it’s safe to say we can expect it in some tiger populations as well. After all, we already know it’s happened to the last South China tigers.

5. Politics

You know, I don’t even want to get into this one. Let’s just say there are a lot of national and international complications, to put it mildly.

6. Consumer Demand

Tigers are big business. The sale of tiger skins, bones, claws, whiskers, and other body parts rakes in millions of dollars a year and drives the poaching of wild animals, as well as the massive commercial tiger-breeding industry in China. As many as 5,000 tigers live on Chinese farms, where their bodies often end up fermenting in vats to be turned into expensive tiger-bone wine.

This industry—which is actively seeking to expand its market in a country of 1.3 billion people—is poised to grow now that China’s proposed new wildlife law encourages commercial use even more than it used to. Meanwhile, it actually puts wild tigers at risk because traditional Asian medicine says products from wild animals have more value than anything produced in captivity. “People should think of bones from farmed tigers as cubic zirconia and bones from wild tigers as natural diamonds,” says Mills. “Supply of one will not satisfy demand for the other.” And as I wrote last year, China’s wealthy elite are actually snapping up wild tiger products as investments in anticipation of the big cats going extinct.

If you think all of this paints a pretty bleak portrait, you’re right. Tigers aren’t going to survive in the wild unless we address all six of these threats. Some populations or subspecies probably won’t survive at all. I doubt we’ll ever get to the point where all wild tigers become extinct, but let’s face the truth: despite some progress, the odds aren’t in their favor.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t had conservation successes in the past few years and that we won’t have more in the future. What it does mean is that every success is precious and that tigers continue to need all of the help that they can get.