A joint study led by scientists from international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) in collaboration with Imperial College London and Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, has revealed that despite low numbers and a fragmented population, Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) have retained reasonable levels of genetic diversity.

Severe habitat loss and other threats such as poaching have reduced Sumatra’s tiger population to an estimated 400 individuals and have left fewer safe corridors through which they can move, forcing them to live in scattered pockets of forest habitat across the island. Such low numbers living largely in isolation from one another would usually be expected to result in reduced genetic diversity. However, this study shows Sumatran tigers have confounded this expectation.

By analysing genetic data obtained from tiger faeces (or ‘scats’) the ZSL researchers concluded that despite the increasing fragmentation of tiger habitat and the low population numbers, there is little evidence that individual habitat patches are genetically differentiated from each other, except in the most secluded southern population.

 These findings suggest that the loss and fragmentation of lowland habitat has occurred only recently in the Sumatran tiger’s history, and thus has not had time to substantially impact the remaining population. Therefore, conservationists still have a unique opportunity to implement land management strategies to protect what few tigers remain before the continued isolation of forested lands degrades the population further.