The Bengal tiger and the Siberian tiger are two sub-species whose numbers are dwindling fast in the wild

By Saryn Chorney
March 26, 2019 04:29 PM

The Rocky theme song “Eye of the Tiger.” The Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger. Your favorite Winnie the Pooh character, Tigger. Not to mention Daniel Tiger. All of these beloved cultural touchstones are based upon a real animal — Panthera tigris. And while the cats are increasingly turning up in very inappropriate and downright dangerous places (think: an abandoned house in Texas), tigers are rapidly disappearing in the wild. In fact, the species could go extinct within our lifetime if we don’t take action now to prevent this dire scenario.

According to a tiger-dedicated initiative by WWF and Discovery called “Project C.A.T.,” there were more than 100,000 tigers roaming the Earth a century ago. Today there are less than 4,000 of these large, charismatic felines left in the wild. The immediate goal of “Project C.A.T.” is to double that number by 2022. After first preserving 2 million acres in India and Bhutan, Discovery’s Project C.A.T. is now adding 3.7 million acres of national park in Russia for tigers, giving them a grand total of nearly 6 million acres of new habitat. And here’s where you come in: Discovery will match donations to Project C.A.T. through December 2019.

Credit: Courtesy of Animal Planet/Discovery

“As an umbrella species, tigers play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. By conserving lands needed for tigers to survive, we also can protect other wildlife and the planet as a whole,” David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery, tells PEOPLE. “To drive this goal forward Discovery created Project C.A.T. … We recently expanded our investment in supporting these tiger ecosystems … across India, Russia and Bhutan.”

Zaslav not only believes in telling important stories, but also that it’s our collective responsibility to act. “Through Project C.A.T. and Tigerland, we are playing our part to confront wildlife extinction around the world,” he says.

Hagenbecks Tierpark - Start of season
Credit: Georg Wendt/picture alliance via Getty Images

The accompanying documentary (see above), Tigerland, about these efforts recently debuted at Sundance and will air on the Discovery Channel on March 30. The film is directed and produced by Academy Award winners Ross Kauffman and Fisher Stevens, among others. It follows a Russian scientist, Pavel Fomenko, who is deeply committed to the Siberian tigers (also known as Amur tigers) on his wildlife sanctuary, as well as the Sankhala family in India who are hard at work trying to educate tourists and save Bengal tigers.

Bengal tigers are particularly vulnerable. A coastal region of south Bangladesh, known as the Sundarbans, is one of the world’s “last strongholds” of the Bengal tiger. More than 70 percent of the region is just 1 meter above sea level, meaning rising water levels are a major threat to the animals there.

A new study says a combination of rising sea levels and climate change due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions predicts a 50 percent loss of Bengal habitat there by 2050 and 96 percent by 2070, effectively wiping out the sub-species in 50 years. Scientists believe that what happens in Bangladesh will likely affect India’s Bengal tigers too, since the cats are “trans-national” and the two country’s environments are similar.

India : Illustration
Credit: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

“Enhancing protected area coverage, regular monitoring, law enforcement, awareness-building among local residents [are] among the key strategies needed to ensure long-term survival and conservation of the Bengal tiger in Bangladesh,” summarizes the report.

For instance, with Discovery’s support via a “blood free honey” project, hive boxes have been provided for villagers to replace the need to venture into the jungle for honey. This idea has been successful in reducing human-tiger conflict; meanwhile other forms of community education and outreach, satellite monitoring and research are also underway thanks to WWF and Discovery.

To get involved in the matching donations campaign, you can text “TIGERLAND” to 707070 or visit Project C.A.T.

Tigerland airs Saturday, March 30, on the Discovery Channel at 9 p.m. ET/PT.