From 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010, to 2,226 in 2014 – the number of tigers in India has seen a steady increase, from a time about a decade back when it had fallen to drastic levels due to the unchecked actions of poachers. The latest official report on tigers, the Status of Tigers Report 2014 has given immense hope to environmentalists and all wildlife lovers that the king of the jungle has a hopeful future. Experts have said that the latest census has been done with the best scientific technology available and it should give a good estimate of tiger population in India.
Tigers are a conservation-dependent species. Major threats to tigers are poaching, that is driven by an illegal international demand for tiger parts and products, depletion of tiger prey caused by illegal bush meat consumption, and habitat loss due to the ever-increasing demand for forested lands.
To gauge the success of conservation efforts as well as to have a finger on the pulse of tiger populations and their ecosystems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), in collaboration with the state forest departments, various NGOs and the Wildlife Institute of India, conducts a national assessment of tigers, its co-predators, its prey base and its habitats every four years.
The methodology for this assessment was approved by the Tiger Task Force in 2005. The first assessment was completed in 2006. The countrywide assessment of tiger status uses a double sampling approach. An unprecedented effort of camera trapping and field surveys across tiger occupied habitats was undertaken for this assessment. This effort has resulted in photo-capture of 1,540 unique individual tigers, constituting nearly 70% of the total estimated population of 2,226 tigers.
One of the most important reasons being cited for the rise in numbers is that the tiger corridors, which the animals use for moving from one habitat to the other, have been functioning smoothly. The next step in tiger conservation would be to designate these tiger corridors as ‘eco-sensitive’ areas so that when any industrial or infrastructure projects are carried out, the criticality of these areas for tigers is accounted for.
EXPERTS SAY THE SUNDARBANS HAS A MUCH HIGHER NUMBER OF TIGERS
Sundarbans is known to have one of the highest tiger densities in
India. According to Status of Tiger in India 2014 report, ‘The tiger
population in the Sundarbans has remained stable, and is estimated to be
76 (62 to 96).’ This is good news in itself, but according to experts
who have worked in the Sundarbans, the number of tigers there is much
higher. Forest Department officials and experts monitoring the tiger
population in West Bengal have questioned the estimate. Experts and
officials working in the Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve say the mangrove
forests are home to at least 103 tigers. The State’s Forest Department
came out with the figures in 2014 on the basis of images from camera
traps set up by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the World
Wildlife Fund for Nature, India (WWF). An analysis of the camera trap
images reveals that the minimum number of tigers in the Sunderbans is
higher than what has been given in the report.
involved in the setting up of camera traps and regular monitoring of
tigers says the WII needs to re-look at the data on the count provided.
Moreover, it is more difficult to monitor the tigers in the Sundarbans
forest than in other sanctuaries and national parks because of the
difficult terrain of the delta region.
Potential for increase
Tiger populations have increased in several states. Some of the areas are already saturated, like the Corbett area in Uttarakhand, the Sundarbans in West Bengal, or the Western Ghats which now has the highest concentration of tiger population anywhere in the world. Tigers reproducing in these regions are now moving to the surrounding forests through the tiger corridors which are functioning quite well.
In several areas of the country, however, there is a potential for increasing tiger populations, the report has stated. This is a big positive, besides the actual numbers themselves. The identified areas are the Sanjay-Guru Ghasidas landscape shared by Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Kawal and Srisailam Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Simlipal and Satkosia Tiger Reserves in Odisha, Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam, Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, Palamau Tiger Reserve in Jharkhand, and the Achanakmar and Indravati Tiger Reserves in Chhattisgarh.
These protected areas would benefit from conservation inputs that restore habitat, prey populations and in extreme cases, supplementation of tigers. According to some of the experts who were part of the national assessment, India could well accommodate another about 1,000 tigers, but needed to start preparing for living harmoniously with these. Efforts have to be made to see to it that conditions are created and maintained in these regions for tigers to live harmoniously, and not come in too much of a conflict with humans.
It is now clear from the three cycles of countrywide assessment (2206, 2010, 2014) that tiger populations, indicative of intact functioning ecosystems, respond well to reduction in human pressures, protection, prey availability and good quality habitats. The political will, conservation commitment by wildlife managers and improved protection have paid dividends.
The future of tigers in India depends on maintaining inviolate core habitats for breeding tiger populations, habitat connectivity for genetic exchange and protection from poaching of tigers and their prey.