Year of the Tiger: What the Tiger Represents on Chinese New Year

Lunar New Year will be celebrated across the world today (February 1) with the Chinese zodiac calendar marking this annual cycle as the Year of the Tiger.

In the Chinese zodiac tigers traditionally symbolize strength, bravery and wisdom. According to Chinese folklore, the tiger placed third in the race set by the Jade Emperor that assigned the animals their positions in the lunar calendar.

China's ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, gave a speech on Sunday (January 30) alluding to connotations the animal has ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations, and the hopes people may have as celebrations get underway in China and around the world.

"In Chinese culture, the tiger is the symbol of bravery, wisdom and strength. But interestingly, the tiger is not mentioned in the Bible, while the lion, a Western astrological sign, is absent from the Chinese zodiac. Different places and peoples have different cultures. This is only natural, but such differences should not prevent us from understanding," he said. "In the coming Year of the Tiger, we must have courage and vision."

State of tigers globally

All sub-species of tiger are a Red List Endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There are now an estimated 3,500 of the animals left in the wild, down from the estimated 100,000 that existed worldwide 100 years ago. The animals have also lost 93 percent of their former historical range according to the IUCN, and now only live in scattered populations in south, northeast and southeast Asia.

However, a closer look at the different tiger species and their geographic locations reveals a more nuanced picture. For example, long-standing conservation efforts in both India and Nepal have seen tiger numbers rebound significantly in those countries.

There are also modest successes being reported in China and Russia, but their situation in southeast Asia is critical.

Tiger expert and senior director of Panthera's Tiger Program John Goodrich told Newsweek that, as the Lunar Year of the Tiger commences, the animals face mixed prospects in Asia depending largely on their geographic location.

"Over the past 12 years, we've seen the 2008 Global Tiger Initiative put a highlight on this. That has seen success stories in South Asia such as India and Nepal, perhaps in northeast Asia and China not quite as successful but still a success story... and that's really going to the spotlight on southeast Asia because things are not going well for tigers there," he said.

Bengal tigers in Kathmandu
Royal Bengal tigers at a zoo in Kathmandu. National Parks in Nepal have been praised for their tiger conservation efforts by the United Nations Development Program recently. PRAKASH MATHEMA / Contributor/Getty Images

National Parks in India and Nepal were recently given United National Development Program TX2 Awards for the success of their conservation efforts in doubling the number of tigers found within their protected areas.

The animals are also seeing a slight resurgence in China as the Year of the Tiger commences, Goodrich said: "Tigers are increasing in northeast China. They have made so good moves for tiger conservation efforts there over the past 10 or 20 years," he said.

But in southeast Asia, the subspecies of tigers found there are now in critical danger and face extinction in host countries such as Malaysia.

"Their numbers are critically low. The last official estimate I saw was 150. That's critical," Goodrich said. "The Malayan sub-species is the species of greatest concern. The next few years are going to be critical for tiger conservation. But the Malaysian government are apparently making a really big push to get things going and developing a recovery plan for tiger numbers. So even though they are on the brink of extinction I'm really hopefully because I've never seen this kind of government engagement there before," he said.

As national and state authorities seek to ramp up conservation efforts worldwide, the Year of the Tiger could prove to be a boon for this endangered species itself.

In recent decades, Goodrich said, a shift in cultural attitudes towards the animals has been led by conservation efforts like the launch of Project Tiger in 1972 in India. This bodes well not only for their continued survival, but also other species that live alongside them.

"In India and Nepal, they are proud of their tigers. That's in part a cultural shift that started decades ago with Project Tiger. Everybody loves tigers today. Some surveys have voted them the most popular species in the world," Goodrich said.

"If tigers are doing well, pretty much all the other species in that ecosystem is doing well. That's something we can use in promoting tiger conservation—using tigers mascots and a flagship species for biodiversity conservation, for promoting that in specific areas."

Geon-gon, a female Korean (Siberian) tiger
Geon-gon, a female Korean (Siberian) tiger, in Yongin, Seoul. Tiger conservation efforts are showing gains for the animals in south Asia but the animals are facing extinction in southeast Asia. ANTHONY WALLACE / Contributor/Getty Images