For the first time in a century the tally of wild tigers in the world has increased, with some 3,890 counted by conservation groups and national governments in the latest global census.
The tally marks a hoped-for turnaround for one of the planet's most endangered species after an all-time low of just 3,200 animals in the wild in 2010, the last time the population was estimated, according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum.
In 1900 there were 100,000 wild tigers. India is home to more than half of the current estimated population, with 2,226 tigers.
It is not entirely clear if the count, compiled from national tiger surveys as well as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, accurately reflects an exact increase in number of animals or if some of the tally could be attributed to better survey techniques, CBS News noted. But most experts believe it accurately signifies an important uptick in the population.
"We've watched tigers decline for decades and have dreamed of bending that curve in the other direction," Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a statement. "In a sea of bad news on the environment, we're now seeing an increase in the global wild tiger population for the first time in 100 years. This is a big deal."
The global census was released a day before ministers from 13 countries meet for three days in New Delhi as they work toward their 2010 commitment of doubling the world's wild tiger population by 2022.
The effort has been helped significantly by the WWF and other conservation organisations — and a bit of star power in the form of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which has committed $6.2m ($4.4m) to the battle to save the tigers since 2010.
"Tigers are some of the most vital and beloved animals on Earth," said DiCaprio, who serves as chairman of his own foundation and on the board of the WWF. "With our partners at the WWF, my foundation has supported major efforts to double the number of tigers in the wild. In Nepal, our efforts have produced one of the greatest areas of progress in tiger conservation, which is helping drive this global increase in population."
While DiCaprio is proud of the successes, there is "still so much to be done," he warned.
Indeed, not all countries fared well in the latest census. While Russia, India, Bhutan and Nepal all counted more tigers in their latest surveys, southeast Asian countries have struggled. They are also behind the others in conservation measures, and do not yet conduct a tiger census on their own.
Indonesia has seen a rapid decline in the tiger population due to forest destruction to produce palm oil, pulp and paper. Cambodia is considering reintroducing tigers after recently declaring them functionally extinct.
Here is the tiger count breakdown: Bangladesh, 106; Bhutan, 103; Cambodia, zero; China, more than seven; India, 2,226; Indonesia, 371; Laos, two; Malaysia, 250; Nepal, 198; Russia, 433; Thailand, 189; Vietnam, fewer than five.
The Myanmar government's count of 85 tigers in 2010 was not included because the data was considered out of date
Enough forests remain to reach the goal to double the tiger population provided the habitat is protected from destruction and the tigers are saved from poaching.
Researchers used satellite-based monitoring systems Google Earth and tree-cover-loss alert system Global Forest Watch imagery to track forest coverage from 2001 to 2014. They were surprised to find that tiger habitat destruction was not as severe as they had predicted with 7.7% lost over the years in target areas studied.
But there were significant variations from spot to spot. Of 79 landscapes tracked, few showed little change. But 10 spots accounted for 98% of the destruction, according to the research published in Conservation Biology. The key to protecting tigers, they said, depends on holding the line on more habitat destruction.