The impact on tigers of poaching versus prey depletion
- 1There exists a continuing dilemma in prioritizing conservation actions for large carnivores. Habitat loss, poaching, and prey depletion have often been cited as the three primary threats, but there is debate over the relative importance of each.
- 2We assess the relative importance of poaching and prey depletion rates, and use existing information in the literature and multi-type branching process and deterministic felid population models to address four lines of evidence used to infer that tiger populations are inherently resilient to high mortality rates.
- 3Our results suggest that tigers, more so than leopards or cougars, require large populations to persist, are quite susceptible to modest increases in mortality, and less likely to recover quickly after population declines. Demographic responses that would ensure population persistence with mortality rates that are sustainable for cougars or leopards are biologically unrealistic for tigers.
- 4We propose alternative interpretations of evidence used to suggest that tigers are inherently resilient to high mortality rates. In contrast to other solitary felids, tigers breed later and their inter-birth interval is larger, making them less resilient to poaching. A model used to support the contention that prey depletion has greater impact on population persistence than poaching appears to be based on false premises. Camera-trapping data that suggest positive population growth despite low survival rate cannot differentiate mortality from emigration, and does not differentiate the impact of varying survival rate on different sex-age classes; for example, low survival rate of dispersers is tolerable if survival rate of adult breeding females is high.
- 5Synthesis and applications. While high prey numbers are essential to sustain tiger populations, our results suggest prey recovery efforts will not be sufficient if mortality rates reach 15%. Extrapolating demographic responses from other, even closely related species to develop conservation strategies can be misleading. Reduction of human-caused mortality, especially of resident breeding females, appears to be the most essential short-term conservation effort that must be made. Since mortality rates are usually unknown and generally stochastic in nature, any management policy that might reduce survival rates should be firmly avoided.