The allure of the tiger. As the population of Asia's wild tigers has declined over the years, the legendary animal has become a thing of fable as much as reality. But in Thailand's western province of Kanchanaburi, conservationists are working to bring the tiger population back up. Visitors to Tiger Temple, or Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua -- a sort of Buddhist temple-cum-animal sanctuary -- can pay to be photographed with the tigers. The money, according to the monks, goes towards caring for the animals. (Steve Winter/National Geographic Stock)
Tigers live in 13 countries across Asia and 50% of them reside in India. Largest of all the big cats, males can reach 2.75m in length and weigh 300kg, and with 10cm retractable claws, they are strong enough to kill and drag prey five times their weight. Short, powerful legs also allow the tiger to achieve bursts of speed above 35 miles an hour and leap more than 3m in the air.
Global alarm for the species was first sounded in 1969 following a peak in the tiger skin trade. Twenty years later, there were an estimated 8,000 tigers left in the wild. Today, the tiger population is thought to be fewer than 4,000 – though many conservationists believe that number to be far lower. Pictured, a researcher in Thailand's Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary -- where the tiger population has increased from 20 to 60 over the past two decades -- puts his ear to the belly of a pregnant tiger, listening for foetal heartbeats. The improved health of Thailand's western forest and the increase in available prey (each tiger needs about 50 animals, or 3,000kg of meat a year) suggest that the tiger population in Huai Kha Khaeng could continue to grow.
The tiger's enemies are well-known: loss of habitat exacerbated by exploding human populations, poverty — which induces the poaching of the tiger's prey — and the dark threat of the black market for tiger parts. Less acknowledged are botched conservation strategies that for decades have failed the tiger. Pictured, a poacher's snare on the Indonesian island of Sumatra cost this six-month-old cub its right front leg. Poachers have been known to use barking puppies as bait to lure tigers into a trap.
The feasibility of bringing tigers back from the razor's edge of survival relies not only on human actions in the immediate future but also on the tiger's own remarkably resilient nature. An average female can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10- to 12-year lifespan, and tigers are not finicky about diet or dependent on a particular ecosystem like Pandas. In Thailand's Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (pictured) dedicated, by-the-book monitoring has also given tigers a fighting chance.
In another example of remarkable resilience, Indian Sundarban tigers, like the one pictured, are powerful swimmers and have learned to supplement their diets with marine life. Tiger tracks have been found in Bhutan above 13,000ft, an altitude overlapping the domain of the snow leopard. "There is 1.1 million square kilometres of tiger habitat remaining [in the world]," said Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist and vice president of conservation science of the World Wildlife Foundation. "Assuming two tigers for every 100 square kilometres, that's a potential 22,000 tigers."