The results of the year-long national tiger estimation exercise indicate that, overall, there has been a significant rise in numbers of the charismatic big cats. The population estimate for 2010 is 1,706 tigers (based on a lower limit of 1,571 and an upper limit of 1,875) compared with 1,411 four years ago. The latest estimate includes those in the Sunderbans, which were not counted earlier. To conservation-minded citizens and research scientists, this increase is extraordinary, given the severe pressures on the habitat of the animal. The answer is to be found, in part, in the science-based conservation methods that some States have adopted in recent years, and the transparent, constructive partnership they have forged with research organisations. Arguably, the best such ‘public-private-partnership' model is to be found in Karnataka, where the Forest department and independent scientists have, over time, evolved a rigorous protocol. That approach consists of camera trap-based data collection, prey species assessment, enforcement of anti-poaching laws, and, crucially, convincing forest communities to accept substantial compensation to voluntarily relocate and make space for the tiger. Tamil Nadu also has a keen focus on conservation. It comes as no surprise that the Western Ghats, which straddle these States (and Kerala), have achieved a big increase in tiger numbers. Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have, by contrast, registered a decrease.
Encouraging as the overall results are, there is a need to progress to a more intensive system of counting tigers and their prey. This exercise needs to be carried out not every four years, but annually, to assess changes in ‘source populations' of tigers that are confined to a small part of their natural range. There are an estimated 40 such distinct groups across India and they hold the key to sustainable conservation efforts in the long term. It is important that these are monitored using fool-proof tools such as camera traps, rather than by forest guards on foot patrols. The foundation for such study was laid nearly two years ago through a consensus reached among officials of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Wildlife Institute of India, research scientists, and leading conservationists on the methodology for future monitoring and assessment. Essentially, this consists of the capture-recapture method of camera trapping supplemented by DNA analysis. With a supportive Environment and Forests Minister in Jairam Ramesh, the Authority should quickly operationalise a national action plan to monitor tigers year-round and ensure that local extinctions get as much attention as national increases.