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The marked rise in the population of tigers in the wild is also an indicator of the robust health of at least some of India’s forests, which augurs well for their ability to absorb carbon and thus combat climate change

India reports a 30% increase in the tiger numbers over the last four years (Image by Koshy Koshy)

India reports a 30% increase in the tiger numbers over the last four years (Image by Koshy Koshy)

It is a rare piece of good news for the conservation world. India has reported a 30% increase in the tiger numbers over the last four years. While the estimated tiger population in 2010 was 1,706, it has jumped to 2,226 in the 2014 national survey.

While releasing the Status of Tigers in India Report 2014 and lauding the efforts of the Project Tiger Team, Prakash Javadekar, India’s minister of environment, forests and climate change said, “This increase in tiger population is a testimony of the success of various measures adopted by the government.”

One part of the success that the government is likely to highlight at international forums is the health of the forests that enabled the rise in tiger numbers. Since tigers are at the top of the food chain, a rise in their numbers means there has been a rise in herbivores, and, before that, a rise in the plants that the herbivores eat. A healthier forest is better able to absorb carbon, a major climate change mitigation measure.

“India is willing to donate tiger cubs to the international community and play a key role in global tiger conservation efforts,” Javadekar added. The country now has about 70% of all tigers in the wild.

The highlight of the year-long survey is that 1,540 tigers have been captured on camera, thus increasing the reliability of the census manifold. Joseph Vattakaven, a wildlife biologist who works as tiger conservation advisor with WWF and who also gave his scientific inputs for the tiger estimation survey told, “It is great news as we have unique photographs of 70% of the tigers. Since each tiger has a unique set of stripes, it leaves very little margin for error and it leaves no room for doubt for the existence of these tigers.”

This is the third country-level tiger assessment that employed state-of-the art technology of double sampling, using camera traps. The same technology was first used in 2006 which revealed a shocking dip in tiger numbers – just 1,411 tigers – which sent out alarm signals in the conservation world and prompted the government to take stringent protection actions and setting up of a Tiger task Force.

Since then, the survey has shown an increasing trend in the tiger population while the forest area under survey has also increased. A total of 378,118 of forest area in 18 states was surveyed in 2014.

Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, told, “Over 9,000 cameras were used across the country and they have shown excellent results. The technology has been made more refined now.”

Before 2006, tiger populations were estimated by recording pugmarks, a far less reliable system. For the 2014 survey, the foresters have used a combination of camera traps, DNA sampling and field reports from 29,000 sample plots, looking not only at the tiger population but also the health of its prey base.

According to the report, the tiger population has increased in the states of Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The survey was done in five landscapes – the Shivalik-Gangetic Plains in northern India, Central India and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, North-Eastern India and Sundarbans. All the landscapes have recorded an increase in tiger numbers.

The Shivalik-Gangetic plains cover the foothills of the Himalayas across the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It includes the celebrated Jim Corbett National Park, which had 485 tigers in 2014, up from 353 in 2010. The North-East hills and Brahmaputra river valley – including the Kaziranaga National park – are now home to 201 big cats, from 148 in 2010. The number had dropped to 100 in 2006.

Tiger conservationists have cited various reasons for the jump. Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, told, “Any tiger conservationist will be thrilled to know that the tiger numbers have gone up. There are a number of reasons for this increase in number. There is better management of parks. Also, individuals involved in the estimation effort have become more experienced with the new methodology as this is the third time that they are doing it.”

Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO, WWF-India said, “This demonstrates the impact of bringing together political will, strong science and dedicated field efforts.”

“Some people may question that Corbett already has the highest density of tigers, then how can we say that the numbers have increased in the Shivalik landscape. The answer to that is that tigers are moving out and populating other potential habitats too. So this is a very good sign and it also shows that there is an urgent need to safeguard the tiger corridors that connect tiger habitats so that they can disperse out,” added Vattakaven.

Apart from poaching, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are the top challenges that tigers face. Conservationists have pointed out the urgent need to not only safeguard the tiger corridors that help in the safe passage of the animals from one forest to another but to also focus on the tiger populations that reside in highly vulnerable forests outside the protected areas.

Firoz Ahmed, wildlife biologist and tiger conservationist from Aaranyak, a NGO working in the north-east, told that while the increase in tiger numbers has come as good news, it has little to do with the conservation efforts in the region. “In my opinion, this is not solely because of better conservation efforts in the north-east. While the protection of the parks has gone up, the higher number is also because of the fact that we have better data now.”

Ahmed added, “To get a more accurate picture and in order to scale up protection, the government needs to shift its focus beyond ‘celebrity parks’ like Corbett, Kaziranga etc. and focus on other lesser-known forests which are not well-protected but have a high potential for holding tiger populations. For instance, Dibang valley in Arunachal, where with good conservation efforts, existing tiger population can be stabilized.”

While tiger numbers have gone up in all landscapes, there are some areas of concern – Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Mizoram have all shown a decline in tiger population.

The Western Ghats landscape has recorded 776 tigers – a jump from 534 tigers in 2010. The Central Indian and Eastern Ghats landscape has shown a smaller increase from 601 to 688. So has the Sundarbans – from 70 to 76.

Ahmed warned that the boost in India’s big cat population can make it a more lucrative target for the international wildlife trade. “Unfortunately, it is very good news for the poachers too. Wildlife traders will see India as a good potential for the supply of wildlife contraband. The government must scale up anti-poaching efforts.”

According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 42 tigers were killed by poachers in 2013, the last year for which estimates are available.

“We also need to ensure that big projects are not allowed to come up in crucial tiger habitats and this is something that the government needs to do,” added Wright.

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