4 ways climate change is making life harder for tigers

Indochinese tigers

Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia. (© Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

Editor’s note:  In the past century, 97 percent of the world’s tiger population has vanished, leaving only about 3,900 individuals left in the wild. Poaching, deforestation and development have driven this sharp decline. Now, from the pine forests of Russia to the rainforests of Indonesia, a new threat looms for these remaining tigers: climate change.

1. Rising sea levels

In India and neighboring Bangladesh, rising sea levels are shrinking coastal habitat for hundreds of endangered Bengal tigers that rely on the area’s mangrove forest, the largest in the world. Higher waters erode this patchwork of islands, called the Sundarbans, and cause salt water to migrate into fresh water, polluting the tigers’ drinking source. Tigers must find new freshwater sources and move to higher ground, escalating conflicts with communities living there.

2. Deforestation

Cutting down forests accelerates climate change while pushing species like the critically endangered Sumatran tiger to the brink of extinction. Unsustainably cultivated palm oil plantations are fast replacing Indonesia’s forests. This deforestation destroys important habitat, and could leave Sumatran tigers more vulnerable to illegal wildlife trafficking.

Keeping Indonesia’s forests intact helps protect tigers and address the impacts of climate change. CI is working in Indonesia, Brazil and other key palm-oil-producing countries to keep deforestation out of palm oil supply chains.

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3. Temperature changes

Shifting temperatures are altering habitat for Siberian tigers in Russia and China, as Korean pine forests give way to fir and spruce trees meaning less prey for hungry tigers that prefer to hunt in pine forests. Fewer than 600 Siberian, or Amur, tigers remain, heralding the possible extinction of the world’s largest cat within the next 100 years.

4. Natural disasters

As climate change accelerates, scientists predict more frequent wildfires in the remote regions where Siberian tigers live. Longer, hotter and drier wildfire seasons are the new reality, threatening Siberian tiger habitat and food supplies. Climate change also drives more intense storms and flooding that ruins crops, forcing people to travel farther from their homes and into tiger territory to make a living. In the Sundarban Islands, human-tiger conflict can result as displaced farmers gather seafood and honey in the same mangroves where tigers roam.

Climate change is threatening the habitats and food sources of tigers, making them vulnerable to poaching and to conflicts with communities. In many cases, protecting tigers specifically by preserving their habitat, which is often forest also helps combat climate change. By keeping forests standing, we’re giving tigers a fighting chance.

Leah Duran is a staff writer for CI.

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