Planning tiger recovery: Understanding intraspecific variation for effective conservation.
Science Advances 26 Jun 2015: 1 (5) e1400175; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400175
Although significantly more money is spent on the conservation of tigers than on any other threatened species, today only 3200 to 3600 tigers roam the forests of Asia, occupying only 7% of their historical range. Despite the global significance of and interest in tiger conservation, global approaches to plan tiger recovery are partly impeded by the lack of a consensus on the number of tiger subspecies or management units, because a comprehensive analysis of tiger variation is lacking. We analyzed variation among all nine putative tiger subspecies, using extensive data sets of several traits [morphological (craniodental and pelage), ecological, molecular]. Our analyses revealed little variation and large overlaps in each trait among putative subspecies, and molecular data showed extremely low diversity because of a severe Late Pleistocene population decline. Our results support recognition of only two subspecies: the Sunda tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, and the continental tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, which consists of two (northern and southern) management units. Conservation management programs, such as captive breeding, reintroduction initiatives, or trans-boundary projects, rely on a durable, consistent characterization of subspecies as taxonomic units, defined by robust multiple lines of scientific evidence rather than single traits or ad hoc descriptions of one or few specimens. Our multiple-trait data set supports a fundamental rethinking of the conventional tiger taxonomy paradigm, which will have profound implications for the management of in situ and ex situ tiger populations and boost conservation efforts by facilitating a pragmatic approach to tiger conservation management worldwide.