Excellent news on Global Tiger Day: the latest national tiger census says India has 2,967 tigers - double that counted by the first national census conducted in 2008 with a new scientific methodology created by the Wildlife institute of India.
Before that, a completely unscientific pugmark count method was employed and the figures were regularly fudged. At the first scientific national census in 2006, alarm bells were ringing as tiger numbers were at 1,411, the lowest experts said it had been in decades. Two of India's big project tiger parks, Sariska and Panna, had lost all their tigers and poaching and habitat loss was a problem. Since then, Panna has bounced back with over 30 tigers while Sariska has some now too.
As India is the largest range state for the tiger today, an increase in its numbers is a huge and positive step for the world. This also puts India on a positive track for 2022, the Year of the Tiger, by when the 13 tiger countries have promised to double their tiger numbers. This promise was made in 2010 under the Global Tiger Recovery Program. While 2022 might not see global tiger numbers doubled, tiger numbers in India, Nepal and Bangladesh have increased.
The national census covered an area of nearly 4 lakh square km across the country. Of this, nearly 1.3 lakh square km, was covered by camera traps. To date, 2,500 individual tigers have been camera-trapped; the rest are estimated through habitat analysis, prey availability, direct sightings and indirect sightings.
The census is an enormous undertaking and this time, even the North East states were covered quite extensively
While what India has accomplished is commendable and to be celebrated, questions are inevitable. On a state-wise break up of numbers, it seems improbable that Madhya Pradesh, for example, could have had a nearly 70% increase in tiger numbers in just the last five years with numbers growing from 308 to 526, while habitats have not really increased. Madhya Pradesh in this census list is the state with the most number of tigers reclaiming the crown from Karnataka, which is now in second place with 406 tigers. The Western Ghats in their entirety, however, hold close to 776 tigers, and this shows the importance of contiguous forests tracts. Maharashtra is another state with major gains. Numbers have jumped from 190 tigers to 312 tigers. Tamil Nadu on the other hand has only gone up by 35 tigers.
It is also important to note that states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have shown a decrease in numbers. These are the states that face huge mining lobbies. Andhra Pradesh has also shown a decline, standing only at about 48 tigers, 20 less than five years ago. This is alarming as Andhra has the largest tiger park in the country, Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve. The Telengana forest department has just opposed mining for uranium in their maiden tiger reserve, Amrabad. The Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, however, has given a go-ahead.
The North East has grown from 100 tigers to 219 since 2008. The most exciting discovery was that of tigers in the snow in the highest reaches of the Dibang Valley at 11,000 feet in Arunachal Pradesh in the camera trap set up by researchers in December 2018. This was a previously unknown population to the scientific world, whereas the local Idu Mishmi people were always aware the tigers were there, highlighting the need to work with local and indigenous communities.
Three project tiger reserves, Buxa, Dampa and Palamau, showed no presence of tigers. These parks have been in trouble for over a decade and nothing has been done to either secure them or solve the problems.
While it's great to know numbers have increased, we cannot afford to slide into complacency. Tigers are the world's largest feline predators and have lost 96% of their home range in the last 100 years. As a species, they are robust, in that they will breed well when conditions like habitat, prey base and minimal human activity interfere with their daily routine. This is why the largest numbers of tigers are still found in our protected areas and their surrounds. As habitat gets fragmented or diverted for projects such as highways, mines, dams and buildings, more tigers are being found in heavily fragmented and human-dominated landscapes where their primary diet is livestock. The tiger by design is a territorial cat. All of them look to establish their separate territories and this makes them disperse over large areas. If protected areas reach a saturation point, as many of our protected areas have, they are forced to look outside for new territory. If the connecting corridors between forests are healthy, this dispersal happens without trouble. As adept as they can be in doing so, it is still a large carnivore who is dangerous when confronted. In the first five months of this year, we lost an average of ten tigers a month. According to records by the Wildlife Protection society of India, so far 76 tigers have been killed, half of them by poachers.
A dwindling prey base also leads the animals to target livestock, thereby putting them on a path to attack and kill people. Only last year did the world watch the drama over Avni in Maharashtra and the controversy of her death by a sharp-shooter.
Just a few days ago, the world watched in outrage, as a tigress was beaten to death by villagers in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh in a video that went viral.
In the coming years, if habitat and prey base does not match up to growing tiger numbers, conflict with people living in the peripheries of forests and fragmented patches is going to increase. Habitat restoration and protection not only helps tigers, but also will help secure India's water security and help mitigate climate change effects. The tiger as an umbrella species stands as the symbol of protection of our ecological future.
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of 'Born Wild', a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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